Defaulting To Whiteness: Sci-fi Futures, ‘Girls,’ & The Trouble With Colorblind Thinking

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Media are reflections of the culture and society they represent and emerge from.  When one is alienated from certain media it likely stems from a lack of relatability on the part of the consumer in relation to the reflection in question.  In other words, the consumer doesn’t see themselves reflected in the product.  This is why, stereotypically, men don’t like daytime soap operas and romantic comedies, women don’t like sports and wrestling, and black people don’t like Seinfeld and the Winter Olympics (this black person actually loves Seinfeld as much as he hates the Winter Olympics, but we’re talking about stereotypes). 

If we can’t see some part of ourselves looking back at us from the medium it can be difficult to engage with material. This is obviously not as simple as mere demographics; the human condition and depictions thereof provide myriad avenues for representation and relatability, cutting across and encompassing various -ics and -ologies, but by that same logic, demography does not exist in a vacuum.

If it had just to do with mere demographics, there’s no earthly way that I, from my infancy to present, could grow up loving audio-visual media knowing that I was black and also noticing that quite clearly there was a lack of people who looked like me represented in those same media. Furthermore, if I knew I was black and was increasingly annoyed by the lack of black people on screen, subsequently yearning to see an increased presence, why were so many of my favorite characters white? The reason, of course, is that I related to these characters on a human level. There were aspects to them that I related to for reasons that crossed and often coincided with demographic markers.  Indeed, the characteristics that led me to feel a kinship with my most enduring favorite characters all relate in multiple ways to my blackness and/or multiethnicity.  The psychic darkness and social alienation of Batman, the tokenism of Lt. Worf as a part of Enterprise Crew in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the tortured, proud multiethnicity of Spock, always on display even and especially when he was at his most Vulcan in his attempts to conceal it, and the nomadic impulses at war with loyalty and devotion to his surrogate family on the part of Wolverine.  It is not simply a coincidence of fandom that all the examples above stem from genre fiction.  It also happens that this is the area of American pop-culture with the largest blind spot when it comes to matters of race and representation.

For a long time now, it has puzzled me to no end why Science Fiction writers and producers continuously exclude people of color (POC) from depictions of the future.  This pervasive tendency flies in the face of all logic, demographic trends and projections, not to mention even the most modest ideals of human progress.  This, more than any other trend, tendency or genre convention, undermines SciFi’s credibility on a grand scale.  For all the times I take it upon myself to defend the genre from detractors as to its prescience and intellectual bonafides, if anybody ever brings this up as a counterpoint I’ll have nothing to say, because they would be right.  The only example I can think of as a work that comes close to getting it right is Children of Men.  The internet lacks the capacity for a list of texts that take place sometime in the next three hundred years where there are literally no POC, and that would just be off the top of my head.

“Minority issues” are often addressed by proxy in SciFi, such as the plight of mutants in Marvel’s X-Men, aliens and androids in Star Trek, and probably most presciently Philip K. Dick’s Replicants in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott’s classic adaptation, Blade Runner. But where are all the human minorities? By that I mean people of color, who were of course around when they wrote and produced these things and to the chagrin of some will still be around (in greater numbers, even) in the future.  Blade Runner takes place in a Los Angeles that, judging from the film, is whiter than it’s ever been.  I’d never even seen a black android onscreen until Michael Ealy on FOX’s Almost Human giving a standout performance in an otherwise mediocre and yes-whitewashed series.  Furthermore, these proxy stories sometimes make it seem as if POC are something “extra,” foreign, and essentially completely “other,” and not a part of the overall cultural fabric of our societies.  To replace us with creatures such as androids and aliens suggests that we’re replaceable and exchangeable.  It is literally dehumanizing.  The Battlestar Galactica reboot is about the only series to accomplish both-the proxy narrative with the Cylons, as well as a truly diverse cast playing very human humans.

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Some defenders of SciFi more optimistic than I like to challenge me on this thesis and often cite my beloved Star Trek franchise as a counterexample.  This argument falls short, however, on what I like to call the “one per ship” policy that Trek seems to routinely employ.  Original Series Enterprise crew: one black officer (Uhura), one Asian (Sulu), one Vulcan (Spock), etc.   TNG seems more complicated but it’s really not; the regular cast, depending on the season, featured as many as three Black American actors, only one of whom however, was playing a human (LeVar Burton as Jordi). Whoopi’s character was alien, as was Michael Dorn’s Worf obviously, and in full SFX makeup at that.  Joss Whedon’s spectacular series Firefly and feature film followup Serenity is one of the only franchises that takes place in our future featuring true human diversity (reason #856 that Whedon is king).  We’ll ignore for now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s glaring issues with black characters.

None of my arguments here are meant to take anything away from any of the quality works mentioned in general or in particular the wonderful performances in Trek or the genius of Rodenberry and his team, or from his progressive vision, as helplessly utopian as it may be. Furthermore its notable they cast multiple actors of color in TNG in roles that “didn’t need to be,” so to speak.   I use these examples to demonstrate that there is a hyper-anglonormativity running rampant through even the most enlightened futuristic visions.   The root and cause of this problem is of course the lack of black and brown voices (as well as LGBTQ and female for that matter) in the rooms where SciFi content is generated.  People default to what is familiar to them, what is their “normal.”  White writers, for that matter white people, usually default to whiteness.  A vision of a whitewashed future strikes me as well as my good buddy whom I like to call Science, as idiotic, but when you’ve got a preponderance of white men, no matter how progressive or well-intentioned, responsible for such an overwhelming amount of the content concerned it should surprise none of us when the results are such.  That brings me to another racially frustrating pop culture institution I have an enormous amount of esteem for that in my opinion unfairly takes much more criticism, Lena Dunham’s Girls.

I will say upfront that I am a MASSIVE Girls fan.  It’s my favorite show on television.  No other screen content of the past decade has brought me more enjoyment.  I think it’s brilliant.  Having said all that, I acknowledge that of course Girls has a race problem.  But so does every other show not run by Shonda Rhimes, and those shows have problems all their own.

I think a great number of critics and audience members alike use Girls as a scapegoat for problems endemic to most of TV and American pop-culture as a whole.  It doesn’t excuse any shortcomings that me or anybody else thinks it has in form or content, but I believe that to be the case.  To the best of my knowledge, Girls has no black or brown writers or producers-most of the material seems to be generated by Dunham herself, Jenni Konner, and Judd Apatow, whom I’m also a longstanding fan of but doesn’t usually have my POC representation is most of his stuff either (although I had read awhile back that he’s trying to develop a crossover vehicle for Kevin Hart with Seth Rogen) .  When the race issue is pointed out to them, Dunham routinely seems genuinely contrite, Apatow genuinely annoyed.  Its pretty hard to image any outsized racial malice on the part of Dunham or most television writers, people simply just default to what’s familiar to them, as I mentioned before.  They probably just wrote the first season without thinking of it, defaulting to whiteness.  After the season aired and it was pointed out to them, they intentionally inserted the Donald Glover storyline for the beginning of Season 2, which was not only one of their clumsiest arcs to date but came across to me as almost a “fuck you” to detractors as if to prove that they really couldn’t write characters of color.  Their Season 3 method, though not entirely successful, was far more clever and effective.  For the first time, there was a black speaking role in nearly every episode (however minor) wherein their blackness was never annunciated-the opposite of Glover’s ham-handed Black Republican.  It appeared to me at least that they made a concerted effort to insert black actors in roles they wrote for “whoever.”  Whether of not this was their intent, I found the results mostly enjoyable.  It gave us the girl who threw coffee at Jessa in rehab, the hilarious publisher who interviewed Hannah for a job, and of course Jessica Williams in the “GQ” episodes.  As short as this may fall from any true lasting progress on this issue, I do think it better than what they attempted in Season 2.  If I am right about what they did here, I sincerely hope they continue, because it can only lead to more and more progress because they did not exhaust the pool of black talent they have access to.  Once people are “in the room” they can have an influence.  Diversity breeds diversity, but if allowed to stay in a default position, the status quo remains the status quo.  Things do not change on their own.

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I consider this default posture I’ve mentioned to be symptomatic of one of the greatest oversights of desegregation and ugliest legacies of the failure of integration.  It is not enough to simply concede that all people are “equal.”  That statement in and of itself is meaningless unless we decide and define what exactly we want and believe equality to mean, in addition to acknowledging where and when inequality exists.  If media representation of oppressed groups, ethnic or otherwise, is disproportionate even to our unequal stake in the larger society (which it is), it is not enough to simply say that “such and such is not racist” or have one or two characters of color here or there to placate the objections of interest groups or for the sake of political correctness.  Non-exclusion is not inclusion.  That’s why the 99.9% white town I grew up in is not “desegregated” or “integrated” simply because de jure segregation is against the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the United States.  People of color must be a part of the process, we must have a seat at the table.  Our humanity, in other words, must be acknowledged. We are not something extra, an appendage to the national or cultural framework, we are a part of it and always have been.  To be ignored, by definition, is to be of little or no importance to the producer of the text in question.  When we’re excluded it means that we’re of no significance to the person compiling the list.  Shonda Rhimes has diverse casts because it matters to her.  FOX network, by and large, has diverse casts because it matters to them.  I’m willing to bet that diversity matters to a greater share of the purveyors of the text than is visible.  The problem is that the industry doesn’t give a shit.  The industry defaults to whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. Once in awhile a trend will pop up and we’ll see an influx in the representation of one group or another, but lasting change has never occurred on our media landscape-at least not in proportion to our actual numbers in society.  The reason for this is very simple.  The balance of power shifts heavily and disproportionately to people who default to what they know and in most cases, what and who they are.  They default to white male hetero-normativity even in otherwise cogent and visionary speculative fiction set in our near future where all data and common sense should lead one to do otherwise.  To change this situation we obviously need more writers of color in the Science Fiction genre, but we also need the writers and producers already there to give a damn.

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