Science fiction media has traditionally been a great place for representation. By definition, the genre has one foot in the probable and one foot in reality. Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura on Star Trek was famously one of the first significant roles in Sci-fi for a woman of color. Her role broke boundaries in 1966. About a decade later, in 1979, Sigourney Weaver became another iconic non-default science fiction character in the movie Alien, in which she played Ripley, the tough-as-nails main character whom actresses still name as a icon for “strong women” roles.
As breakthroughs were made in the science fields, the genre of science fiction has shifted to include new discoveries into its explorations of ethics and the human condition. It would make sense that the genre would also allow for the expansion of representation within its casts. 2014 marks the 35th anniversary of Alien, and science fiction seems to have abandoned the concept of diversity.
Lee & Low Books, a diversity-based children’s book publisher, took the liberty of showing how large the diversity gap still is. Only 14 out of the top-grossing sci-fi and fantasy movies include a female protagonist. Only eight have a protagonist of color, and, as the infographic cheekily points out, five of those are portrayed by Will Smith, one is Aladdin (as in Disney’s Aladdin) and none of those characters of color are women.
It’s easy to come to the conclusion that audiences don’t want to see movies with non-default main characters in them, but that’s not the case. Young male presence at movies has actually dropped, which may explain why this summer’s batch of movies has only done a mediocre job in the box office.
That aside, there aren’t that many diverse movies to begin with. Those that do include representation, however slight, like Lucy, seem to be released as an afterthought, shooting themselves in the foot by attempting to go up against movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, which have a whole comic book corporation behind them. I wouldn’t have known about Lucy had I not gone to see a movie a few months earlier and seen the promo. In the meantime, I can’t walk past a Subway without being flagged down by Sharknado 2 paraphernalia (because the first movie was so fantastic).
Science fiction television isn’t doing well either. A glance at current science fiction shows on SyFy and BBC America reveals casts that look nearly identical to 1966’s Star Trek: white casts, give or take a peripheral token character or two. In some cases, the 60’s Star Trek had a more diverse cast than shows that haven’t even aired yet.
Characters of color are noticeably more prominent in shows with large ensemble casts, like Continuum (which is currently in danger of cancellation) and Haven, but a large ensemble cast means less screen time for everyone — or, in Haven’s case, a lot of screen time for three characters and a revolving door for supporting cast members.
Interestingly, both Continuum and Haven feature a white woman as the main character. The white woman science fiction lead is nothing new. Think of Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully of The X-Files. Scully originally shared star billing with FBI partner Fox Mulder, but when he left the show, she became the lead. The X-Files premiered over twenty years ago.
The reality is that science fiction film has progressed very little over the past forty years. I love science fiction, and it’s been a great place for diversity in the past. Uhura broke boundaries in the sixties, but her placement as a woman of color in a movie or television show today has become token in most science fiction works as opposed to a catalyst for more diversity (as it was when she made her appearance in the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie).
The science fiction genre is stagnating (and if you don’t believe me, just know that Sharknado 3 was advertised right after Sharknado 2 had aired), which is ridiculous because there’s so much room for diverse storytelling. Orphan Black, which actually does a fair job with representation considering half its cast is played by the same person, is a very popular cable drama with a huge and devoted Internet following.
However, Orphan Black is only one show among several, and we can’t keep pointing to characters like Uhura, Ripley and Scully as proof of progress. They’re wonderful characters, but they’re decades old. We need new characters as benchmarks.