Monday, March 26, 2012

What do "humans" look like?

Last year, Racebending took a look at Hollywood's tendency to use white actors to depict "human appearing" aliens. While that's not true in every movie - for example Mos Def played Ford Prefect in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - non-white aliens are the exception, rather than the rule. As the article concludes:
The overall fact remains that a balanced representation is hard to spot in “human alien” films, because when aliens are written to look like us, it’s the kind of “us” that racially dominates Hollywood and controls its creative processes. Despite the use of sci-fi premises that supposedly spur the imagination to the furthest reaches of space, the narrow focus of “white by default” is still pervasive enough to ground out-of-this-world concepts with business-as-usual biases.

But it's not just aliens who are "whitewashed". When science fiction stories are turned into movies, even characters originally depicted as non-white get portrayed by white actors. Some of the more egregious examples are the SciFi Channel's adaptation of Usula LeGuin's Earthsea novels and the live action movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

So why does it matter? I think the representation of what is to be considered "normal" in popular entertainment can influence what we consider to be the norm in real life.

I think the recent tempest about the casting of the Hunger Games movie helps show why it's important to include human characters of different races. In the Hunger Games novels, the characters Rue and Thresh are described as having "dark brown skin and eyes". Given that description, it's not at all surprising that black actors (Amandla Stenberg and Dayo Okeniyi) were cast in the movie versoin those roles.

But it turns out a number of fans of the Hunger Games novels imagined the characters Rue and Thresh as white, despite their description. And those fans aren't just disappointed. They have been vocal on Twitter that depicting the characters as having dark skin made them less sympathetic and even ruined the movie for them.

And going beyond the explicit racism of many those tweets, some fans who had no problem with the casting in the movie originally imagined the characters as white, presumably because they unconsciously assume that the default human is white. That assumption is reinforced by the majority of movies and television shows.

To my mind, it only makes sense to imagine a future North America where the inhabitants have a range of skin colors and racial and ethnic backgrounds, simply because that is the case in present-day North America. Unless there is some action to eliminate or segregate humans by the color of their skin (such as the way black people were rounded up and resettled in the Handmaid's Tale), it makes no sense to depict an all white future.

And now that we have a black President, will Hollywood step up and show aliens looking who look like our leader when they say "take me to your leader!"?

(link to the Racebending post via My Sci Fi Online ; link to Hunger Games Tweets via Jezebel)

1 comment:

Doug Dandridge said...

Of course Star Trek was different in this respect, even though almost all the aliens were played by human actors, at least until they had better CGI. There were black Klingons (Worf being the best example) and a black Vulcan in Voyager. But then Roddenberry pioneered the color blind society of the future, despite calls from the business as usual people who tried to make him change his crew of the Enterprise to an all white male group. But he insisted on having a Japanese Helmsman, an African female Com Officer, a Russian Navigator, and of course and alien First Officer. The most brilliant scientist of his age, Dykstrom, was shown as African American. And it carried on into the other shows. The Captain of DS9 was also black, and Asians were shown frequently. And unless it is a movie made by a country with a uniform ethnic group, like Japan, I am very disappointed when I see an all white crew or population in a movie about the future. So I don't see why the business as usual types don't get a clue. Our modern Army has Whites, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics among its ranks. And so will future military forces and societies.