Whatever Happened to Uhura?: The Absence of Color in Science Fiction

Kamillah Brandes

In March 2012 the first film adaptation of the young adult science fiction trilogy The Hunger Games netted approximately $155 million on its opening weekend (Daniel). The film follows a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen as she is forced to fight to the death to protect her family and her district. This storyline is not only popular, as shown by its “record breaking” opening weekend winnings, neglect that these groups experience. The United States is on its way to becoming a nation that is no longer strictly black or white. This bolsters the idea that the traditional portrayals of what American citizens should look like is becoming invalid. The 2010 United States Census indicated that by 2050 approximately 49.9% of the population of the United States will be made up of people of color. To date, California, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and New Mexico have populations in which people of color comprise over 50% of the population (“Knowledge Center: People of Color in the US”). Science fiction needs to accurately depict the demographics of its audience’s culture because one of the main strengths of science fiction is its ability to make its audience question the rules of the culture that they are living in, warning them against certain behaviors that the culture is engaged in. Society is reliant on its media to reinforce its social norms, and so by devaluing certain groups of people a negative message is being sent that seems to come from the mouth of society itself. The genre of science fiction is naught but a small aspect of media, but by starting in one section, the rest of the industry can be changed and perhaps so can society.

One of the biggest challenges facing women of color in science fiction is the idea that there is no market for this genre. For black women, the media that is made to cater to their needs is exemplified in movies by Tyler Perry and original shows on BET. Another major issue facing the propagation of women of color in science fiction is the fact that there are few people creating this media. The Director’s Guild of America found that in the 2012-2013 network television season and the 2012 cable television season only 2% of all episodes were directed by women of color (“DGA Report Finds Director Diversity in Episodic Television Remains Static”). These two issues are also important because they affect the funding allotted to programming. A study by Children Now found that in the 2003-2004 primetime season, 45% of drama (in which science fiction was included) television had a mixed cast, but that around 25% of the shows had all white casts and that the number of shows with all African-American or all Latino casts combined was only 3% (Glaubke & Heintz-Knowles). In order for science fiction to accurately comment on social values, its films and television shows must use diverse casts and also circumvent traditional ideas about what people of color are supposed to watch and support.

Science fiction has always been able to use its narratives in order to talk about and critique society. H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds (1898) deals with themes such as the ramifications of colonialism and imperialism through the guise of a Martian invasion of Earth. At the time the novel was written, the British Empire was rapidly expanding across the globe. Wells opposed the racial inequality that served as the outcome of colonialism (H. G. Wells). This can be seen in his novel, which serves as a commentary about colonialism by showing how the Empire would react to its colonization. In chapter 1, he writes, “The Tasmanians… were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” (Wells 20). The novel’s use of science fiction brings up issues that are endemic to the society the novel was written in and still tells a fictional story. This is why science fiction thrives as a genre: it creatively reminds its audiences to question the status quo.

Another example of science fiction embedding social commentary into the framework of its storytelling mechanism is the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The television show thrived by placing its characters into ethical situations in which their reactions to situations showed how the show’s creators believed society should behave. In an interview, Star Trek: The Next Generation writer Ronald Moore stated that, “the lifeblood of Star Trek’s television shows is its morality plays and social commentary. It’s sci-fi that provides a prism on human society and culture” (“Warping Through Star Trek: The Next Generation’s 25 Years with Ronald Moore”). Star Trek: The Next Generation explored how cultures should interact with each other and questioned what made a human being moral in certain situations and how human beings should react to things outside their norms. Science fiction allows its creators to explore questions that plague society without being bound to the technological rules of society. This gives the narratives the ability to be pushed as far as they can go to show the extremes of the society to which they allude and to inspire change in that society.

While there are few female protagonists of color on science fiction programming today, a precedent was set by Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek television series. A communications officer on the USS Enterprise, Uhura was one of the first African-American characters on television that was not some sort of menial laborer (“MAKING HISTORY”). In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Lieutenant Uhura and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk shared the first interracial kiss on American television. The episode aired in 1968 in the midst of the United States’s Civil Rights movement and it represents the first courageous step by a science fiction program to normalize interracial relationships. This shows how characters of color try to affect cultural change as they can help to reflect social change in fictionalized situations more accurately. Uhura’s character was a positive portrayal of someone of African-American descent at a time when it was critical that African-Americans be shown in a way that highlighted their potential. The Lieutenant is an intelligent and strong character, making a concerted effort to change the way that women of color have been portrayed on television.

Despite the strides that Lieutenant Uhura has made for women on television and in related media, women are evaluated first in terms of their level of attractiveness to men, often before any merit is ascribed to their intelligence or other accomplishments. For young girls of color, skin tone is an important aspect of beauty. Studies have shown that girls who are darker-skinned have lower self-esteem and body image than their lighter-skinned contemporaries (Breeland-Noble 224). A precursor to this study showed similar results. Carried out by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947, the experiment asked 253 African American children between the ages of 3 and 7 to indicate using dolls of different skin tone which dolls they associated with being “a nice color” or “that looks bad” and which dolls looked like them (Clark & Clark 169). The study indicated that not only were the children aware of racial differences, but also that they thought the “white” dolls were more desirable and felt the need to identify with those dolls instead of the ones that looked like them. Because of the historical context of the study, it can be inferred that these children felt this way, often at the expense of their own self-esteem, because of the cultural values of the times.

The idea that skin tone is related to beauty is reaffirmed not only by culture but has manifested in the media. The most infamous examples are L’Oreal’s lightening of pop singer Beyonce Knowles skin tone for an ad campaign, as well as the lightening of actress Gabourey Sidibe’s skin on the cover of Elle magazine’s September 2010 issue (“Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women of Color”). Young girls internalize the idea that their skin is not beautiful, and in a society where what a woman looks like is often the first step to the woman making something of herself, many young girls do not grow up with the idea that they can be anything or do anything with their lives. By not being portrayed favorably in any part of the media, society is telling them that they are not wanted. By not including their representations in science fiction, the media is telling them that they are not valid sources of social critique.

People in positions of power, such as casting directors and directors, feel that there are too few actresses of color to play roles that are not simply stereotypical. Studio executives also assume that any cast that is predominantly one race will only do well with audiences of that same race. This means that there is little motivation to change the way that the media deals with people of color, as it is seen that they have their own media they enjoy and consume and so they do not need any other narratives. The Matrix trilogy is notable for its use of many actors of color. While the film can be commended for having complex characters played by an actress of color, like the Oracle (Gloria Foster), its main characters are generally white and male. Since the Matrix trilogy, there have been few science fiction films to feature as many actors of color, and one film is not enough to remedy the problem. There is also the prevalent idea that one character of color is enough to designate a show as diverse. This means that as long as one character is of color, regardless of how many racial jokes or stereotypes are used in relation to that character, that aspect of society is receiving due recognition in the media. In order for the problem of representation in science fiction to be remedied, it is important to reject the stereotypical characters that women of color play. Directors can begin by championing scripts that portray both women and people of color in racially ambiguous roles. While a character’s race may be an important aspect to the narrative, it can be important in shaping the character in news ways besides the ways that are stereotypic to their race. Another way this can be remedied is to recognize the links between media portrayal and collective self-esteem. This will really call on those who believe in equality to actually do something. This can manifest in the casting of television shows and films or in the way that films and television shows are written. It is no longer enough to include a token character of color on television. As people of color begin to assert their majority in the population, they will no longer be restricted to stereotypes.

Another important aspect to increasing the portrayal of women of color in media is to champion existing work. Octavia E. Butler, the “grand dame of science fiction,” has written thirteen science fiction novels featuring characters of color and none of these books have ever been adapted to film (“About”). The fact that her narratives even exist is testament to the fact that an audience for science fiction among people of color already exists, but it has not been championed and popularized. This is reiterated in a statement by the head of Sony Picture’s Screen Gems Clint Culpepper. He says that, “[Independent black filmmakers are] making films that are generally not commercial… I don’t know how to market that to a mass audience” (Dawn). Production and distribution studios are unsure how to make money off unconventional story lines about people of color because these story lines do not resemble the story lines that they believe audiences of color want. Science fiction could be one of the genres that illustrates that audiences of color are just as likely to consume media as white audiences. Its tradition of social commentary lends itself to this endeavor, and its use of allegory can show audiences what their societal norms should actually look like.

The media is a tool of a society to enforce its social norms. It reinforces what is beautiful, what is desirable, what is taboo, and what has no value. Women have struggled with their portrayals in media as bound to the way they look and their capacities as mothers and caregivers. However, science fiction is one form of media that actively tries to break down this barrier by crafting female characters that work on spaceships like on Star Trek or fight to the death in The Hunger Games. These women are exemplars of what a woman should be but often times these women conform to society’s version of what is desirable and attractive by looking a certain way, because unfortunately society still emphasizes the way a women looks before her intelligence. Women of color have to be portrayed in roles that show them as strong and beautiful so that young girls will see that looks may just be the beginning, and what truly matters is intelligence and strength. Positive representation in the media would give women of color a way to reclaim their identities as strong characters in society and give them a voice to critique the values that often neglect them. The media is what society uses to reinforce its values, and so if the message the media is giving changes, then society would follow suit.

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