Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Unpacking the Drow

*SOOOOOOOOOOO....I wrote the following article before R.A. Salvatore made this statement... I completely agree with Salvatore's statement that he used the racist trope of dark skin=evil. This is an extremely problematic trope especially being a person of color. I struggled most of my life with seeing someone who looked like me but was a good guy. 

The interpretation of an author's work by the author is arguably the most valuable interpretation of a text. Salvatore's acknowledgement and regret of his previous mindset is monumental, and a step that more fantasy authors which worked with similar or worse tropes should make. 

The following are my feelings and interpretations of the Drow as a race before Salvatore made his statement.*

How do I say this without sounding racist? 

I don't think the Drow of Dungeons and Dragons are not as racist as everyone makes them out to be. 

Let me explain. 

From the Pages of the Monster Manual

For those unfamiliar with this particular controversy, Drow are a species of Elf from the Dungeons and Dragons mythos, and are depicted as an evil race with dark skin and white hair who hate everything but themselves and worship an evil demon goddess named Lolth. Already you can see the problems on the surface. The race have been villains in the game since the first edition, gaining more notoriety due to the writings of R.A. Salvatore and his popular Drow hero Drizzt Do'Urden, a ranger who forsakes his people to fight for good and justice. 

In recent years with people more willing to address the more problematic segments of fiction and society, the Drow have been under heavy fire for depicting the majority of their race as evil and with black skin (Note that the same controversy hasn't been applied to Duregar, a similar race of deep dwelling evil Dwarves, or Orcs, a race that is at best depicted as uncivilized and at worst depicted as willing to follow anyone willing to lead them). I want to say right now that I get the issue. The idea that dark skin means evil has been a trope overused in fantasy and mirrors the inequality and racism in our own society. As a person of color I lament rarely seeing characters that look like me, or who come from a culture besides western European that aren't depicted as exotic or primitive. That being said, I have a special place in my heart for the Drow, and Drizzt Do'Urden in particular, which is why I have to be a voice to defend their writing. 

Coding vs Coloring

The pain point in the Drow are the aforementioned idea that dark skin means evil. What we call this in storytelling circles is coding, making something easily recognizable as one thing visually so we don't have to go in and explain why it's bad. An example would be in Star Wars where all the Stormtroopers have uniforms that hide their faces, this codes them as military and authoritarian. You'll notice that in  Clone Wars (where the Clone Troopers are supposed to be good) that their uniforms have unique patterns and custom designs, a coding that demonstrates individuality and personality, versus the absolute control the Stormtroopers symbolize. 

As far as Drow coding goes the coding stops at the skin color. Drow culture, when depicted, shows nothing of any indigenous practices or traditions that describes them as meaning to be one real life people or another. The coloring isn't even complete since it stops at the hair, which is depicted as thick and white, a trait which does not occur naturally among any group of people (Unless you're Sean Connery or Leslie Neilson. Ugh I love their hair.). 

Praise the Spider Queen

Drow society is depicted as a hierarchy of families, each trying to climb the social ladder to be on top. Lead by the females, the Drow are constantly trying to undercut the person above them to gain position while cutting down any below them that may pose a threat. All of this is in devotion to their deity Lolth, who thrives on chaos and suffering. While the Drow are powerful, their own ambition keep them from truly organizing and becoming a true threat to any one culture. In this depiction, the Drow are coded less as people of color and more of as a giant pyramid scheme/cult, with Lolth as the head scammer. 

The statement that they are an evil race can be replaced with statement that they are an evil society. Drow children are taught in this culture to play the game of ladder climbing and to fear and obey the Spider Queen, and the key word there is taught. The few depictions of Drow children show them behaving like children, having to learn to be evil. They don't emerge from the womb with a whip in one hand and a spider in the other, but are taught how to behave. While Drizz't is the most well known other Drow, including his father and sister, have been shown to question the society as they've matured into it, but seem trapped by the societal machinations with few options to escape. 

Back to the game, players who want to play a Drow character in Dungeons and Dragons are not constrained to an alignment. Their personal depiction can be as evil or as good as they want them to be, and can have any excuse for their personality they want. An orphan raised by human parents may have scars from being an outsider their entire life but can still be good, and a Drow barbarian raised by wolves can live their entire lives without ever hearing about Lolth. 

Reacting to the Backlash

Wizards of the Coast have been subtly trying to change the Drow since the recent surge of Dungeons and Dragons popularity. More supplements talk about alternative Drow cultures, such as Eberron's scorpion worshipping Drow, Wildmount's above ground Kryn Dynasty, and the Forgotten Realms followers of Eilistraee. None of this is bad of course, giving one of my favorite races more flavor always brings a smile to my face and if the Lolth worshipping depictions are offensive to some I'm glad alternatives are available, but I am sad to see the attacks on the Dark Elves and the opportunities missed to further their story. The latest Magic: The Gathering set only featured two of the race, and those two were Drizz't himself and another good follower of Eilistraee, which was a huge disappointment for someone who was looking forward to building a Lolth themed deck, but I get it. 

I may not like it but I get it. 


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