Sci-Fi Magpies

Four People At A Costume Party.

So you’re all set for the party.

Costume parties are always a chance to shine, but this one’s pretty much The One. After the horror of the ‘Hawaiian Beach’ party, and the humiliation of the ‘Vicars and Nuns’ party, tonight’s the night, dammit! With the theme set at ‘tabletop gaming’, you’ve finally had the chance to rock out your very best costume: an Astra Militarum one.

I mean, at first you thought of modding a set of American Football armour and rocking an old-school Rogue Trader Imperial Army costume, but the grey-and-orange tiger stripe camo was just too ugly. Great as a model, but terrible in real life. Then you thought of maybe doing something based on the old 2nd edition metal Catachans, but… nah. Too Rambo. Even with your sweet converted las-nerf, everyone’ll think you’ve got confused and not understood what the party’s theme is, and you can’t be bothered explaining that no, I’m not Sylvester Stallone a hundred damn times.

Briefly, you flirted with the idea of the classic nineties plastic stormtrooper, but the look was just too conventionally military. You considered a few of the Forge World model lines as well, but they were just too obscure; not to mention, dressing as a Death Korp infantry soldier would mean having to wear that hot-ass gas mask all night and forget that.

So, having finally discounted the idea of dressing as a Commissar (because who needs to spend the night explaining that no, you’re definitely not dressed as an SS officer, and please, please don’t put on social media that I love Steve Bannon and all his demonic little helpers…), you decide that you’re dressing as a Cadian.

And you spend aaaaaages getting the costume just right. You dye the materials to get the colours perfect. You take time fabricating the armour plates from fibreglass and getting it right. You include a few nods to the past lore – alternate shin guards, styled on the old Kasrkin armour, to suggest veteran status. You also hide a few references to the current lore – a talisman bearing the likeness of Saint Celestine, as well as Belisarius Cawl’s name etched into the las-nerf you spent two solid weeks converting for yourself.

In the mirror, you looked great; at the party? You look even better. Your costume’s really got people excited, and everyone wants to know about it. You get to explain the lore, explain the background, explain the culture…

…then fucking Chris shows up.

Chris, along with three more of his jock friends, is dressed in a set of mismatching camo trousers and jacket; the trousers are CADPAT, the jacket’s that dappled German camo you love so much you painted up an entire  Steel Legion force with it. Separately, each item might look good, but together, they just grate. The fact they’re from two entirely different nations would be bad enough, but the colours clash in a deeply unaesthetic way.

His ‘cuirass’ – if you can call it that – is made of cardboard, quickly painted with poster paint. In the centre, there’s just the most ridiculously huge Imperial Aquila… but the heads are facing each other. For some reason, he’s got a can of deodorant, and insists on spraying the air with it every few moments.

The weirdest thing though, is the fact he’s stuffed his normally wiry frame with a huge pillow. It distends his clothes and armour to the point he looks pregnant.

“Hand me the dice!” he shouts, in a voice dripping with sarcasm, and all his jock friends laugh. Then, turning to you, he says: “Hey! You came as a Warhammer too!”

“A warhammer?”

“Yeah, you know. Those little dollies you play with. Shopkins with guns. A Warhammer. I thought it’d be a cool costume. It got a laugh out of the lads.”

You wonder if you should correct him, but with all his friends around you, it suddenly feels a little scary. They probably won’t beat the shit out of you again (they haven’t since year 8), but the risk isn’t worth it. Neither is making yourself the target of their mockery.

“Yeah,” you say. “Umm… Chris, what’s with the deodorant?”

He laughs, lifts your arms, and sprays them.

“Went into that Games Workshit place to get some inspiration, and Christ those gamers stank. I mean, do they hand the B.O out at the door, or is it some mark of honour to reek like a tramp’s ass? Like, a way they can spot each other when they’re out with normal people?”

Fighting down the urge to deck the much larger man, you grit your teeth, knowing you’re going to regret asking even as you do…

“And the beer belly?”

He turns to his mates, and they all laugh.

“Those gamers in the shop, they’re such fat fuckers, innit? Christ, the beardy ones’ would catch fire if they ever stepped in a gym. I mean, have you ever seen such a disgusting crew of hideous turds? It’s like a babysitting service for clueless manbabies. No wonder you never see a girl in there… and I bet every lad in the place thinks it’s only because women don’t like competition.”

Trying not to seethe, you nod, smile, and sip your drink, when that uniquely nasal voice grates right into you.

“Alright boys, how’s it all going?” asks Alex.

You’ve known Alex a few years now. His mum’s pretty well-to-do; paid for private tutors to make sure he excelled, which he did. The problem is, he knows he did, and isn’t shy about letting other people know about it. But of a know-it-all to be honest. Sure, he can be a nice enough guy; he’s clever and funny. You’ve just learned it’s only so long as you let him think he’s right about stuff. Thin skinned, he can’t stand to be shown up and his defensiveness means he gets aggressively rude if he ever is.

A few weeks ago, back when the party was announced, he asked if he could pinch your Chaos codex. Initially, you’d wondered if he was interested in getting into the hobby. Nope. Turning, you realise what his reasons were. Alex’s outfit is… well.

You couldn’t call it 40K. Or Age of Sigmar. Or even WHFB. It’s not quite right.

But it’s close. You can see which bits have obviously been inspired by the background.

“What the bloody hell are you supposed to be?” asks Chris, chugging a couple of mouthfuls of Fox Hunter.

“A cultist,” Alex replies. “They’re really pretty cool. I based my outfit on The Bloodzerker of Khrone from this other game called Ages of Sigmar.”

And yeah, the moment he says this, you can kind of see what he was going for.

Kind of.

Alex’s recognisably supposed to be halfway between a chaos cultist and a Khorne Berzerker. The skull helmet’s right, as is the belt made of plastic Halloween skulls. But the closer you look, the more mistakes you start to spot.

The first issue is the Slaanesh symbol in the centre of the belt. Alex is also carrying a huge, ornate staff with the Slaanesh symbol on the top.

“Why did you put that symbol there?” you ask, trying to make it sound like you’re just interested, rather than annoyed by the inaccuracy.

“Just thought it looked cool,” he replies. “Slaanish is the God of Excess, you see, and I liked the idea of a Khrone worshipper who worshipped harder than everyone else, you know? Kind of a way to show how excessive his worship for Khrone is, yeah?”

“Oh. Um. Okay,” you reply.

And you know you shouldn’t, but it’s bugging you so much that you can’t help yourself, even knowing the answer’s going to frustrate you.

“Why a staff?” you ask. “I’d’ve gone with an axe, myself.”

“Oh, I didn’t want to be clichéd. I decided, I’d theme my costume around a Khrone psyker. This is my Force Staff. I thought it’d be cool, you know? A way to show how well I’ve understood the different bits of the game’s setting but do my own thing too.”

You do a little bit of a double-take.

“Ummm… You do know that Khorne doesn’t have any magic users?”

“They’re called psykers,” replies Alex with a patronising wave of the hand. “Oh, and it’s actually pronounced Khrone.”

Not wanting to cause a scene – especially over what might be an honest mistake – you decide to fudge.

“Honest Alex, it’s not. It’s pronounced Khorne.”

“No, it’s Khrone. I checked on the internet.”

“Alex, seriously…”

“Wait, don’t you believe me? Look I’ll show you.”

And as they start tapping ‘KHRONE’ into the Google search bar, up steps Grace, and by the Throne, her outfit is amazing.

You were a bit worried about Grace. Not because of anything about her, but since she’s just broken up with her girlfriend, things have been bad. You’ve spent more than a few nights as a shoulder to cry on.

However, she’s not let her personal situation get her down. Looking in genuine wonder at her awesome suit of full Astartes armour, you can’t help but be amazed. Even for a semi-professional cosplayer like her, it’s an incredible piece of work… especially when you know for a fact she’s never played a game of Warhammer in her life. She’s dressed perfectly. It’s a full Mark VI suit, fabricated from a combination of materials so cleverly executed that you’ve no idea what they are. They might honestly be ceramite for all you know.

It’s the little details she’s gotten right too; purity seals with legit Latin phrases (which you know she’ll have researched). A chainsword whose teeth rotate. The service studs she’s wearing, glued to her forehead, each with make-up around it to make the skin look aggravated.

It’s amazing.

They you spot the chapter markings, realise she’s come as a Marine from the Rainbow Warriors chapter, and burst out laughing.

“You get the joke then?” she asks, smiling.

“Yeah. Good pun,” you say.

“Thanks. Spent ages researching everything. I’d seen a couple of Space Marine builds online, and wanted to see if I could get it right. When I found out there was a chapter of Astates legitimately called the Rainbow Warriors…”

“Girls don’t play Warhammer,” says Chris.

“That’s true. Games Workshop don’t make any female models for that reason. And even if they did, you can’t have female marines,” adds Alex. “The lore doesn’t allow it.”

Cultural Appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture. If we want to be legal about it, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defined cultural appropriation as follows:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a ​minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

So far, so complex. What the hell does any of this have to do with the party you just went to?

Well, Warhammer 40K has a culture. As a (presumed) fan of that culture, you’ll know it inside and out, be familiar with the lore. As a result, when you see something that’s Just Not Right, ordinarily created by someone who knows nothing about the game, something that runs counter to the culture (be that established lore, established fluff, or canonical events), it’ll probably grate with you. It might even make you angry.

That’s a similar experience to the one that people from minority and ethnic groups experience when they see their cultures being appropriated – that is, used by people who are not members of the relevant minority or ethnic group.

In our party, Chris represents blatant cultural appropriation. He’s just not bothered. Having got a vague, general sense of what the hobby entails, he honestly doesn’t care about representing it properly, because why should he? He’s just taken the aspects of things that interest him, or that are useful to him; in this case, the parts he can use to get approval from his friends. The fact that he’s mocking and insulting another person’s culture doesn’t matter to him; he just wants to have fun, and doesn’t care who he pisses off. You’re just a joke to him. He’s laughing, which means so should you.

Alex, on the other hand, represents a more subtle kind of cultural appropriation. We normally see this from people who actually genuinely like the culture they’re appropriating, so they often get super defensive when you call it that. They prefer to use the term ‘cultural appreciation’, because they feel that what they’re doing is showing respect for your culture by taking it and making it theirs. From their point of view, they’re not being dismissive of the culture; they’ve actually taken the time to learn about it. So how can it be insulting? Well, because their research is usually incomplete, their understanding only piecemeal. What makes it worse is that, because they’ve done the research, they can feel like they’re an expert on the topic. After all, they did the research! Hence, they may be arrogant enough to try and ‘correct’ members of the culture they’re appropriating, unable to see that they’re not the expert they think they are.

Finally, Grace represents someone who’s not culturally appropriating. She’s treating an unfamiliar culture with the respect it deserves. As a genuinely talented individual, she’s brought her own skills and talents to create something which honours a culture she’s unfamiliar with. The key difference between her and Alex is that Alex is like a magpie; he only takes the pieces he likes and ignores context. Grace doesn’t. She’s taken the time and really done her research. She’s gone and identified those areas of the culture which she most identifies with, and she’s utilising them carefully and respectfully. If there is an option to do something unique and personal, she’s done it within the existing framework.

Real World Problems.

Of course, 40K is an optional culture. One essentially chooses to be a fan of Warhammer 40,000, rather than being born into it. So imagine what it must be like to see your actual, real-life culture misrepresented.

Growing up British, I never understood why every British person on American TV and in films a.) spoke with an RP accent and b.) was the baddie.

Firstly, where were the Liverpudlians? The Yorkshirewomen? The Geordies? The Essex lads? The Cornishmen? Why were working-class men from London talking like they’d been to Eton? My dad was a working-class Londoner, and they didn’t sound anything like him.

And why were we always, always the villains? I mean, Tim Curry’s great as Pennywise, but as he memorably put it “The only roles they ever give me are butlers and bastards.” (This is before HBO realised that quality British actors are very happy to work in TV, unlike their American counterparts and so put them in everything. Seriously, can you imagine Tim Curry in his prime on ‘Game of Thrones’?!) As a kid growing up in the nineties, the only people I ever saw on TV who sounded like me were trying to blow up John McClane.

Only they didn’t really sound like me. Or themselves. Or anyone, actually. They sounded like an American’s vague idea of how the rest of the world sounded.

It was really, really weird.

Was it offensive? Nah. Did it make me want to become a crazy man with a plot to blow up Nakatomi plaza? No, not at all.

It was just unrealistic. And, more importantly, stupid. Like, really, really stupid. When every British person on American TV pronounces their greetings like they’re saying ‘AIR HELL AIR’, all you think is that Americans must be stupid.

Of course, it starts to really grate when you see the way that British culture is represented by non-Brits. Christ alive, that fucking episode of The Simpsons where they visit England. It’s not offensive it’s just so fucking dumb. There’s nothing in it that’s recognisably English. Well, not to me, anyway. Sure, Tony ‘Actual War Criminal’ Blair might’ve been in it, but it’s about as representative of genuine English culture as ‘Game of Thrones’.

At least in that, you’ll hear actual English accents.

Of course, being English, one of the advantages I have is that my culture used to rule the world. The British Empire may be long gone, but its legacy – and the English culture that it disseminated – retain HUGE levels of cultural capital. Americans might speak American English, might try to change the way they spell honour, aluminium and autumn, but there’s no such language as American; it’s still English.

English culture has a disproportionate level of value worldwide relative to our size. And, importantly, I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I raise this point to demonstrate that when an American appropriates my culture, I can raise an eyebrow, sip my tea, and shake my head at the silly little colonials and their funny ways. When an American gets my culture wrong, well, why should I care? It doesn’t affect me. No-one’s going to think any less of me because of a Hollywood film. No-one’s going to make powerful, negative assumptions about my character because of some nonsense they saw on telly.

The same option isn’t true of other cultures. Especially ones which, historically, have not had similar levels of power.

The various Native American Nations have been the victims of horrifying genocides, corralled into the shittiest, most worthless lands, stripped of their assets, and treated as though their foreigners in their own lands… Meanwhile, the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the people who savaged them make money by copying their fashions.

I’m not going to go into detail about the ways in which the fashion industry has disgracefully plundered Native America cultures, but it’s worth reading about. It makes for sobering reading. One of the simplest examples of the harm cultural appropriation causes comes from the way fashion designers recently ‘copied’ (read: stole) the idea of Native American headdresses.

I mean, you can see why: those feather headdresses look awesome. All those feathers? They’re just so damned cool, especially when they flow down the back.

Of course, depending on the Nation the headdress belongs to, there will be deep, widely differing religious, cultural, and spiritual significance to the style, the feathers, the colours… Those headdresses aren’t just cool; they have meaning too.

From the Native American Nation perspective, having some twenty-something hipster with bored, dead little eyes draping across the symbols of their culture is a little… well. We might hate to use such a powerful word, but it applies: what these fashionistas are doing, it’s despicable. People outside the Native culture just see the cool clothes; the people on the inside see their culture being spat on.

Like a holidaying family taking a smiling family selfie by the crematoria at Auschwitz, the whole thing’s just…

Well, it’s not evil.

But it is not cool. It’s shitty.

People with power often feel like they’re not powerful. Dominant cultures rarely feel like they’re in charge. As a result, they often don’t see that what they’re doing is so wretched.

I thought it’d be a cool costume. It got a laugh out of the lads.

I thought it’d be cool, you know? A way to show how well I’ve understood the culture.

Every one of us – every single one – has some culture we regard as sacred. Our nation. Our religion. Our sport. Our books. Our music.

Our games.

Some of it we choose. Some of it is chosen for us, by family, by life. So when someone comes along and misrepresents that – or worse, actively disrespects it – that can be more than simply offensive. If something’s offensive, well, who cares? Who cares that you’re offended?

Offense is just a feeling, and while unpleasant, feelings get better.

The problem isn’t that cultural appropriation is offensive. It’s that it’s damaging. By taking the culture of others for ourselves, we can control how those others are seen, and, in turn, how others people will approach them.

What’s truly difficult is that cultural appropriation isn’t always (or even often) driven by racism. Oftentimes, the cultural appropriator doesn’t mean any harm. Usually, they saw something in the other culture that was just too awesome, and felt entitled to make it their own.

But just like Jack Skellington, while we didn’t mean to ruin Christmas, we still did, because we didn’t understand what we were doing.

A Broad Spectrum of Influences.

So how does this relate to Warhammer 40,000?

Well, 40K has always been a magpie setting. The writers of 40K, like most writers of sci-fi, are constantly pinching ideas from other media and historical settings which they think are cool, or funny, or most often, awesome. Unavoidably, then, there is the chance that some of what they pinch might lead to cultural appropriation, because that’s simply the risk we run as artists – nothing is original.

It has to be said, that 40K seems very much like a place this could happen. After all, the setting has a longstanding problem with the way it presents anyone who isn’t male and white. Women get pretty shoddy treatment, not to mention that in the grim darkness of the far future, we apparently exterminated all the black people. (Well apart from that one Inquisitor in the first ‘Dawn of War’ game with the SUPER weird accent. Oh, and that one Culexus who was sent to kill Horus. Oh, and the Minstrels of Nocturne… although they’re not exactly of African descent, are they?)

So are there any problems with 40K in this regard?

Honestly? I’m not sure.

The Dark Angels originally had roots that were influenced by Native American iconography – hence the Native-inspired headdress helmet. The very first story about the Deathwing is even clearer about this, with characters obviously named in a style meant to echo Native American naming conventions.

Over time, of course, the fluff took the Dark Angels to a more monastic-inspired theme, with the feathers being the only real remaining indicator of the more tribal roots. As a result, there’s clearly no real-world cultures being inadvertently referenced any more.

This everywhere in 40K; it’s a setting which revels in broad strokes, rather than specificity. You can always kind of see where the designers got their inspiration, but it’s never quite specific enough to be noticeably ‘real’.

The Blood Angels have Renaissance-inspired aesthetics… but they’re also Space Vampires, and there’s Astorath, with his Coppola-Dracula armour. The World Eaters are kinda-sorta Visigoth berserker barbarians whose original chapter colours match the Finnish flag… but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Striking Scorpions have those Rasta-inspired dreads… but they’re obviously not hair, instead being segmented armour plates. The Necrons have a distinctly Mesoamerican feel, what with the shape and style of the swords, shields and helmets… but you’d be hard pushed to say they were definitively based on the Aztec, Incan, Mayan, or any of the great pre-genocide South American empires. Orks are… well, working-class Englishmen.

Kinda.

Sorta.

So while I feel that you can definitely see the influences the designers have drawn upon, so far, Warhammer 40,000 hasn’t really appropriated any other cultures for itself. However, with that said, it’s important to remember: I’m a white Englishman.

I’m not remotely the expert on the myriad real-world, culturally significant specifics that the designers might potentially have drawn from in order to create their models. It’s entirely possible that there’s plenty of things in the game universe that I’ve missed.

And I think that this is the real point: when you’re from the dominant culture, you’re not the one who should be talking.

We’re the ones who needs to listen.

Because cultural appropriation does cause harm. Is it as significant as other forms of racial or ethnically-driven unpleasantness? No, of course not. But just as with all forms of less obvious racism and stereotyping, it causes harm. How? Because people who know nothing about the culture being represented look at the Hollywood images on their screen and assume they’re true.

Die Hard 2’ made the claim that [url=http://diehard.wikia.com/wiki/Glock_7]a gun called a Glock 7 exists, made of porcelain, which can pass through metal detectors[/url]. They used a Glock 17 as the prop for this fictitious gun, and from that point on, there were people who believed that a Glock 17 could go through metal detectors. If you’re a gun expert, that scene makes you cringe, but Glock’s sales went up in the US because of that film and the nonsense claims it made.

The problem is that people believe what you tell them, because researching things takes effort and learning is hard. Reality is complicated and difficult and strange, working in ways that are convoluted and unexpected. There are places in the world where people are buried in the sky. One of Rome’s Emperors was black. When wrestlers bleed during a match, it’s because they’re really bleeding. A million strange things happen in this world a day, and the stories we use as the roadmap of our expectations will always be insufficient to the task of explaining the complex realities of our lives.

We don’t know it all.

As a result, we, as fans, need to use our ears more than our mouths. We need to understand how painful it is for a person to see their culture insulted. We need to stop being defensive, because an unintentional mistake is only okay if we correct it. Finally, we, as people with power, need to demand that those artists and creators we respect are held to account. Cultural appropriation may seem like a minor problem when weighed against wealth inequality, climate change or war, but it is a problem nonetheless, and one that’s entirely avoidable.

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3 thoughts on “Sci-Fi Magpies

  1. Pretty much.
    Former imperial powers’ opinions on appropriation are like men’s opinions on feminism; an argument for the house that doesn’t need to be made.

    Like

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