Why Authentic Representation Matters: Black Women in Science Fiction

uhuraOne of the most common criticisms we at Lady Geek Girl and Friends have of geeky media concerns a lack of representation in our books, films, and TV shows. So why, exactly, is it so important to have diversity in our geek media? Why does authentic representation matter so much? Is it enough to simply have diverse characters on our screens, or is there something more? In order to dive into these questions a little more deeply, let’s take a look at how one group, Black women, are represented in geek media.

Science fiction has always been the most taboo-busting of any genre, at the forefront of any culture battle. It’s not only safe, but expected that content creators will push the envelope of the status quo. One way they do that is through creating diverse characters. In doing so, we get two kinds of representation. Simple representation merely includes a wide variety of characters on the screen, in important roles. Differences between the characters (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc) don’t have any real impact on who the character is in the story or what they do to move the plot. Authentic representation makes those differences an important part of the character and their motivations. It puts the real experiences of people with that trait on the screen, and makes them relevant to the plot. Simple representation shows us that differences exist; authentic representation shows us that they matter.

hattie mcdaniel oscar

The one good thing that ever came from the Mammy trope: Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar.

When we satisfy ourselves with simple representation, it’s easy to fall into harmful stereotypes. The Mammy trope comes from the image of a content, uneducated, Black female slave working in a household cleaning house and caring for children. Hattie McDaniel made a career out of these kinds of roles, becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award (for her role in Gone with the Wind; we get the name for the trope from her character). Other Black female stereotypes include the Sassy Black woman, the Angry Black Woman, and the wild, hyper-sexual Jezebel. Stereotypes like these only do more harm than good, negating any real benefit to having a Black woman on screen. These tropes confine and dehumanize the group represented by the trope.

The first time a Black woman was cast in a major, non-servile role was when Star Trek cast Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura. Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season for a career on Broadway, but then she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a fundraiser. He told her she couldn’t leave the show because she was too important of a role model, and they had a long talk about “what the images on television tell us about ourselves”.

Oh, and she would sing while Spock played his Vulcan lute. She's just that talented.

Oh, and she would sing while Spock played his Vulcan lute. She’s just that talented.

Uhura is the chief communications officer on the starship Enterprise, and eventually rises to the rank of commander. Throughout the series we see her capable at the helm, navigation and science stations. In one episode she and Captain Kirk famously share a kiss, under the influence of a Plationian’s telekinetic powers. It was the first interracial kiss on American television. But Uhura is a groundbreaking character because she is a Black woman doing things that, at the time, were thought to be more appropriate for white men. Even the kiss she shares with Kirk doesn’t result in Uhura becoming a stereotypical female love interest to Kirk’s white male hero. This right here gives us some simple representation, seeing a Black woman on our screen as an active character. We also have some glimmer of authentic representation, because the show touches on Uhura’s identity as Black and female.

firefly zoe washburneSo how are we doing today? We see more Black women in science fiction television than in the 1960s, in a variety of roles. Firefly’s Zoe Washburne serves as Captain Malcolm Reynolds’ most trusted Lieutenant and first mate. She’s a capable sharpshooter and leader on the battlefield. Zoe’s loyalty to Mal is only compromised when he stands between her and her husband. She defies Mal’s orders and marries Wash, and when a villain attempts to force her to choose between ransoming her husband or her captain she picks her husband before the baddie can even get the words out. Her status as a loving wife doesn’t comprise her abilities as a first mate; the two enhance each other to create a dynamic and interesting character.

dualla battlestar

Anastasia Dualla is the communications officer on the ship Battlestar Galactica, and a likely homage to Uhura. She proves to have a level head in a crisis and to be very adept at her job. She is caught in a love triangle between Lee Adama and Kara Thrace, and eventually marries and later divorces Lee. Dualla is from the poor and religious colony of Sagittaron. Though not very religious herself, when the crew discovers that the much-prophesied Promised Land of the planet Earth is not much more than a barren wasteland, Dualla sinks into a depression and commits suicide.

"I guess I'll be happy that some guy wants to bone me, because why not, right?" Doctor Who’s Martha Jones is the second companion of the rebooted series. She is a medical student and nearly a doctor herself. Martha uses her medical training throughout her run as companion. She’s resourceful, a quick thinker, and probably has the most tenacity and sense of self of any of the new companions. However, she spends much of her time on the show nursing her unrequited affections for the Doctor (who is busy being blinded by his pining for Rose). Martha eventually decides to leave him of her own accord (rather than the Doctor abandoning his companion like he usually does lately), but not before spending a year of her life wandering a post-apocalyptic Earth evangelizing people in the Doctor’s name.

All three of these women are great examples of simple representation. Simple representation is a character on the screen filling the role any other human could. We need simple representation because for so long white men exclusively filled most important character roles. Eventually, many came to believe that many of the experiences unique to white men were also applicable to all humans. At the same time, we also came to think that many things all humans can do could only be done by white men. Simple representation helps us combat this tendency and shows the audience that all people can explore what it means to be human. Authentic representation takes this a step further; it explores whatever makes a character unique. Battlestar Galatica and Firefly pretty much ignore the fact that Dualla and Zoe are Black, but they’re certainly cognizant that they’re women. Dualla gets the short end of the stick, stuck in her stereotype of the unrequited inhabitant of a love triangle. But Zoe gets to invert wifely stereotypes. She “wears the pants” in her relationship with her husband and saves his life in a daring way. But the show also avoids the “domineering wife” trope by showing her passionate, loving relationship with her husband. Zoe challenges what it means to be a wife in a positive way. It’s one way (of many) to explore what it means to be a woman.

Martha Jones gives us a much better example of authentic representation. While her femininity is explored through her romantic feelings, Doctor Who addresses Martha’s Blackness. When she and the Doctor travel to the past, Martha experiences a variety of reactions to her race. Some of these are good (apparently Shakespeare’s “dark lady” of Sonnet 130 is Martha), but most of them are negative (people ignore her opinions, she works as a maid, etc). Luce goes into more detail about Martha Jones and casual racism here. You couldn’t cast anyone but a Black woman as Martha Jones without altering the character and plotlines on a fundamental level. This kind of character gives us both simple and authentic representation.

Simple representation is an important first step. We need to get bodies on the screen and show that white cishet male isn’t the “default” setting of humanity. However, authentic representation is even better. By exploring the unique experiences of all kinds of individuals, we expand our idea of what the normal human experience looks like. We open a virtual treasure trove of narrative possibilities. Using the same kinds of characters puts limits on the kinds of experiences we can explore. When we put diverse characters on the screen in an authentic way, we explore what it means to be human without any boundaries. Uhura was one of the first Black female characters; I hope that because of her and other modern women of color, we will continue to see more in the future.

6 thoughts on “Why Authentic Representation Matters: Black Women in Science Fiction

  1. To get more black characters in science fiction we need more black writers writing science fiction. We can’t keep relying on white men to do the representation for us. That’s why I was happy to discover Octavia E. Butler and Stephen Barnes and books like “The Eye, The Ear and the Arm” which takes place in Zimbabwe in 2024.

    • Oh, man, I haven’t thought of “The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm” since middle school. I can definitely second that recommendation. I also remember liking “The House of the Scorpion,” another one of Nancy Farmer’s books.

  2. Pingback: Links: Redefining Disability, Feminism, Diversity and Science Fiction | Natacha Guyot

  3. Thank you for this perspective! As a fiction writer who could check off a fair number of the ‘privilege boxes’ on a list, I find that I need to keep an eye out for these sort of discussions. The following comment is lengthy, and for that, I apologize.

    Your distinction between simple and authentic representation is a really interesting one that I haven’t encountered before. This is my favorite sentence to illustrate the idea: “You couldn’t cast anyone but a Black woman as Martha Jones without altering the character and plotlines on a fundamental level.” I know I’ve seen instances where someone feels that mentioning a character’s race is unnecessary and often irrelevant, and of course that leads to the default assumption of whiteness for all characters, unless proven otherwise. The backlash over the casting for Hunger Games was a particularly ugly example of such a thing. Focusing on creating more authentic representations for PoC could be another possible way to navigate around this issue. The sad fact of the matter is, if you’re writing in the real world, chances are the color of a person’s skin impacts their life in many ways, small or big. Showing some of those prevents people from being able to ignore or brush away important representation.

    One thing this has me really thinking about is a project I’m currently working on, though. It’s set in a fantasy world entirely different from our own, and for no (initial) reason other than, “Hey, why not do this?”, almost the entire main cast is of a dark-skinned ethnicity, living in a country predominated by dark-skinned people. It started with the protagonist’s character design, and then stuck for the rest of the group. But I’ve struggled a bit with the worry that this form of representation is superficial. Of course, one would never bat an eye at the pale barmaid in a story, whose skin tone does not need to be important to her, let alone the peachy protagonist. So, here’s my question: How would you go about authentic representation in a fantasy world? It’s important to me to write a wide diversity of characters, rather than show only a narrow swath of the human experience. Especially in fantasy, which is often full of European white folks and exoticized cultures.

    It seems to me that in a fantasy world divorced from our own cultures, the importance of someone’s skin to their character will come down to portraying the effects of racism, or just tying it to the culture you wrote for them and their point of origin anyway. Being a different setting, the characters of this ethnicity don’t share many cultural ties with people of color in the real world. And as for racism, I know that for me, as a woman, fiction is often an escape; sometimes I’d like to just not read the same old sexism written into my fantasy worlds. (Or worse, the oh-so-clever flip-flop where now the women oppress the men!) So, I’d like to ask any PoC who might come across this post – What makes a representation authentic for you? Are the little things – standards of beauty wholly based around Black features, this sort of difference in background and mindset of a character – enough to make this work as more than an example of variety? Having read this, I now know that I would ideally want my main characters to be unable to be cast as anything but Black women and men.

    At any rate, though, I’m very glad to have seen this post (and this blog, by way of a recommendation due to the changes at The Mary Sue)! It was very thought-provoking, and I will likely end up seeking out feedback in other venues after I ruminate some more. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, but I understand this is a bit of a TL;DR comment, heh.

    • The Hunger Games is an interesting case, both because of the story and the response to it. If she had wanted to, Collins could have done a lot more as far as commentary on racism and poverty. Still, I think there’s a lot that can be analyzed from it as-is. I’ve seen people argue over whether or not Katniss “counts” as a Person of Color. I think the fact that so many people envisioned Rue as white speaks volumes about how we still need even simple representation in our media. It’s more than just imagining characters that look like you; the fact that she’s blatantly described as Black and people were angry when they found out she wasn’t white when the movie came around is more than a little disturbing.

      As far as representation in fantasy, I think the key is to translate the meaning of human experiences into the context of the story. Fantasy seems awfully enamored with Western European images and stereotypes. One way to fight that is to not use them, but ones from other cultures. The whole point of authentic representation is to remind us that other peoples’ experiences are human, too. Like you said, lots of people enjoy fantasy because it’s an escape from reality. While science fiction deals with a lot of problems that are analogous to real-world issues, I think fantasy gives us a better opportunity to explore idealistic world where you can be the hero. It’s more about genuine, universal experience in a imaginative, exotic, “fantastical” context.

  4. Pingback: Show Some Skin! Or, When Will We Actually See Some Black Characters? | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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