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“That’s It?” We Need More Diversity in Science Fiction

Science fiction is diverse in its own nature: a realm that visualizes the impact of imagined science on the individual or society as a whole. The genre holds the power to transform the idea of reality by challenging our societal norms — often times through reflecting these norms in a different light. Consider the politics of the X-Men, a group described by X-Men writer Chris Claremont as “hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. “What we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.”

Roles that serve as positive representation for marginalized groups must obtain the same default-ness as white, straight roles do.

Along with displaying current conditions of our world through envisioned characters, science fiction can also allow a mind to paint a picture of a realm that our reality cannot handle. Creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry envisioned a progressive philosophy unequaled by the political climate of 1966, the year of the show’s premiere. Star Trek cemented its place in the entertainment industry as well as American history for its inclusion of an African American woman and a Japanese American man in roles in which race did not define the boundaries of their abilities. Nichelle Nichols portrayed Starfleet communications officer Nyota Uhura, while George Takei played Starfleet officer Hikaru Sulu. The significance of the roles does not lie in the racial integration, but instead in the division of power and importance between the cast. At a time where Mammy’s, Jezebel’s, and bucktoothed, yellow-face portrayals of Asian men such as Mickey Rooney’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s formed the little representation that Asian and African American minorities had in film and television, Star Trek portrayed the two minorities on the show as dynamic characters unaltered by stereotypes with influence equal to their white peers. The importance of such representation was recognized by Martin Luther King Jr, a fellow Trekkie who urged Nichols to stay on Star Trek after she initially resigned to further her career on Broadway. King reminded Nichols at a NAACP fundraiser of the rarity of giving black women the “honor, dignity, and intelligence” that the beautiful and assertive Uhura held on TV. “This is why we are marching,” Nichols recalls King saying, “we are being seen the world over as we should be seen”.

The creation of a multi ethnic cast coincides with Roddenberry’s decision to set the original series in the 23rd Century. This deliberate jump in time plays with an important form of doubt: what is next? Stories like 1984 provide a glance into a dystopian future derived from mistaken decisions of the present day, but Star Trek delivers the idea that the bigotry of our current world can one day crumble under the presence of an inclusive society. Creating shows with this mindset gives viewers the opportunity to take in images that promote a progressive future. In this case, seeing is believing.

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But with power comes responsibility. Roles like Uhura and Sulu’s have demonstrated science fiction’s capability to successfully create positive representation for marginalized groups. Such a power should be taken advantage of, yet often times marginalized groups are given “token” diversity characters — roles that are one-dimensional, serve as a stepping stone for the often white protagonists, but they’re present so we can’t complain! In 2014, based on the top 100 domestic grossing science fiction and fantasy films, eight percent of movies starred a protagonist of color, none of whom were women. Fourteen percent starred a female protagonist, one percent starred a protagonist with a disability, and zero percent starred a protagonist who identified as LGBTQ.

The importance of representation has remained the same since the establishment of mass media. Despite a mass presence outside of Hollywood, since it’s creation marginalized groups have always been cloaked by the flush of white, straight characters that crowd the films, TV shows, and books our society deems important. Any representation granted would often time devise from the static, stereotypical lens straight white men viewed other groups through. Even with progression, this tradition of scant representation has followed us into the 21st century. Just as little black girls proudly confirmed the revolutionary role of Nyota Uhura with excitement in 1966, young black women in 2017 enact the same reaction when Michonne of The Walking Dead colors the screen. Responses such as this illustrate the importance of representation: the simple action is the first step in normalizing the idea that marginalized groups serve a higher purpose than fulfilling the false images conceived of them by and for white people. Roles that serve as positive representation for marginalized groups must obtain the same default-ness as white, straight roles do.

All genres should claim to uphold this philosophy. However, a genre that chooses to uphold this movement can certainly do better than its current efforts. In the meantime, I invite readers to actively seek diverse science fiction. The slim pickings of dynamic representation do not diminish the prominent list of science fiction created for and by other marginalized groups.

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