WisCon 31: Why is the Universe So Damn White?
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Once again, I must turn to audience members who took notes to provide a play-by-play of the panel. This one I moderated, which meant I could think of nothing but “Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up. Don’t. Mess up.” Thankfully we had a great audience, great panelists (Wendy Bradley, Naamen Gobert Tilahun, and Kate Elliott), and no crazies.
There’s a good summary/transcript up at the FeministSF wiki along with links to other folk’s thoughts about the panel and the issues we brought up.
The panel topic, which I wrote, goes thusly:
It’s great that there are many great SF shows on television with diverse main casts. Stargate, Firefly, Battlestar, Buffy—in each you will find ethnic minorities in major roles. However, if you look in the background it doesn’t take long to notice that even though the main players aren’t all white, everyone else seems to be. Finding a planet full of ‘white’ people is easy, but what about the planets with Black people, or Laotians, or Pacific Islanders? Then you run into the problem of how ethnic minorities are portrayed, both in terms of the main characters and the Aliens of the Week. Why is it so hard for television, which has taken the first step in being inclusive, to take that next step and actually portray a diverse Universe? Why is the Universe so damn white and what can we do to change that?
We spent much of the first part of the panel discussing specific shows we found lacking in this area and when we first started to notice that they were lacking.
For me, it was the last episode of Stargate: Atlantis Season 1. The Big Bad is coming to Atlantis, they don’t know if they will survive, they have enough power to open the Stargate for 3 seconds and send information through. So everyone on the station gets to send a short video message home. It’s the standard stuff — learning about the crew’s families, getting deeper into their characters. We even see some random, background people we’ve never seen before, just to lend it all a bit of realism. Then we get to this one crew member and my mouth is hanging open. She’s Asian, she speaks in this awful, stereotyped, horribly broken Engrish (like just two steps above ching-chong) about how great her boss is, how nice and smart and wonderful, etc. They cut in to her monologue with clips of Rodney, her boss, being an absolute shit to her and everyone else. Now, Rodney is always a shit, so this isn’t surprising, but the way she keeps going on about him! It’s hard to tell if they’re trying to imply that she’s got a crush on him or if they’re making her into the stereotype of the submissive Asian female. It was so blatant and icky I couldn’t believe they allowed that on television.
Then I started thinking about whether or not any of the scientists I’d seen on Atlantis were non-white. The answer: No. The scientists were supposed to be a great international alliance, but all of them are white and/or came from European countries. The only people of color on Atlantis are in the military or are alien. Ford was main cast, Bates was secondary and was only there to be aggressive and angry at Teyla, Teyla is an alien, Ronan is also alien.
After that, it was like a floodgate. Once I started analyzing other SF shows I watched, I saw that even when they had some people of color in the main cast, the people in the background or on the Planet of the Week or whatnot, were white.
One very interesting point Kate brought up was how much Ben Sisko of DS9 is different from other black characters in SF. Sisko had a culture. He had a connection to his past, a place he came from (New Orleans), specific food he cooked for his son, that his father cooked for him. He was more aware of the gulf between what Starfleet understood about the universe and how things actually were. And I have always been convinced that this was due to the influence of Avery Brooks. What other black SF character can you think of who had that cultural link? Geordi certainly didn’t. We knew his dad was Chicken George and his mom was the Queen of Zamunda (these are references to movies, not actually who they were…), but where did his parents come from? Were they born on earth? Which continent, which culture? Where the hell did Tuvok come from? What is the name of the Island of Black Vulcans and, seriously, why haven’t we seen any of them before? Do jaffa do anything but beat the hell out of each other? What do they eat, what do they do to entertain themselves? Other than the one jaffa joke we hear, do they ever write stuff? Even the Klingons have poetry and opera.
Not only is it a problem that the universe is white, but when they do include people of color, they either make them alien or humans of “No-Culture”, which is default culture, which is White American culture.
Wendy brought up that there’s a lack of many types of representation on TV. Where are the ugly people? The fat folks, the differently-abled? Race is one piece of the puzzle of media’s inability (most of the time — there are exceptions, but they highlight the very definition of exceptional) to show us anything but ‘beautiful’ white people who don’t have trouble getting about. “They” assume that’s what everyone wants to watch. Kate read from a news item regarding the adaptation of Bury My heart at Wounded Knee (which I first heard about on Pam Noles blog):
When [HBO] broadcasts its two-hour adaptation of the book, beginning Memorial Day weekend, at its center will be a new character: a man who was part Sioux, was educated at an Ivy League college and married a white woman.
“Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project,” Daniel Giat, the writer who adapted the book for HBO Films, told a group of television writers earlier this year.
O RLY? Ya RLY!
On a happier note, we discussed Doctor Who and how that show not only includes people of color in the background and foreground, but also addresses racial issues without making things All About the Race. Wendy said that this was due to Russell Davies, the exec. producer, having a good track record that allowed him to do what he wanted. The show is also produced out of BBC Wales, which is related but separate from the BBC in London. Because he’s far away from the big honchos, they meddle with him less. Someone else brought up Homicide, which was produced in Baltimore. Maybe getting away from the studio bosses is the way to go if anyone wants to start solving this issue.
I ended the panel by re-asking the question I ended the description with: What can we do about it? Kate said to envision the future you want to live in. Wendy suggested that each panelist take the money we get back for being program participants, buy a couple of copies of Writing the Other, and send them to television execs. Later, someone from the Carl Brandon Society said that it might be more effective if we donated the copies to CBS and had them send the books in an official manner. I love this idea and I think that anyone interested in this issue do so. If you want official info on how to do it, let me know.
I said for people to get involved on multiple levels. If you’re a writer, write characters of color if you’re so inclined. If Hollywood comes calling, exercise your power to make sure they don’t do what the Sci-Fi Channel did to Ursula LeGuin. Get involved with planning conventions and heavily encourage television writers, producers, and actors to come. Make sure they understand that the con is not about just fan stuff (though fan stuff is awesome) but about examining the shows and their impact critically. Give them a chance to learn and respond. Also, get involved on the Internet. Nowadays, producers and network execs cannot afford to ignore what’s going on here. Take part in group blogging, have your own blog, talk about this stuff, get traffic, get known, use your voice.
There are a lot of things we discussed that I didn’t touch on. Firefly, Lost, Heroes, Angel, etc. Hopefully, my fellow panelists will come along and add anything that I missed or they feel is important. You can also read the transcripts, which aren’t long.
And, as I said, my fellow panelists were so, so great. Check out their blogs and books (in Kate’s case).