Why Are There So Many Shows About Boring White People In Space?

Republibot 3.0
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People occasionally ask me why I don’t go out of my way to antagonize Liberals on the site here, why I’m not all aggressive and antagonistic and knee-jerky like most other conservative sites.

“I’m not terribly interested in doing that,” I say, “Sure, it’s fun on occasion, but it’s counterproductive in the long run. I mean, I can’t very well decry the lockstep liberalism of the left if we’re just going to replace it with lockstep conservatism, can I? Regardless of which side of the political divide one is on, you can’t go through life just accepting the ideologies that people serve you, you need to *think,* you need to *decide,* you need to *choose* which solution makes most sense to you, and then run with it. Making fun of people never really helps that. And you need to allow others the freedom to do the same, even if their conclusions disagree with yours. And the bonus, of course, is that sometimes you‘ll come across ideas you never really noticed on your own.”

Case in point: Jetse de Vries has an absolute jim-dandy article over here that’s well worth checking out
http://eclipticplane.blogspot.com/2009/12/should-sf-die.html about reasons why SF is dying as a literary genre even as it’s having vast (Yet dumb) success on TV and Movies. He argues that SF has basically outmoded itself, and I’m inclined to agree on most points. We may discuss that later on, but he has two points that really jumped out at me:

1) SF is racist and
2) SF is basically a white boy’s club.

Now, I’d long decried the monochromatic nature of SF, but I’d never given too much thought to *why* it was like that. I mean, if we look at TV, then practical considerations are a good example: In the US, we speak English. So if we want foreigners as characters on the show, they have to speak English as well. Thus, Captain Piccard is French, but he’s played by a Scotsman speaking with an English accent. Up until the 1990s, TV was regimented enough that you generally didn’t have a preponderance of black folk or Asians or whatnot simply because the networks felt the predominant demographic (White males 18 to 49) would watch it. Likewise, if SF is a boys club on TV, it’s at least largely because it’s specifically aimed at boring white dudes with a lot of discressionary income. It’s not necessarily because the folks making the show are racist. (Though in some cases they certainly were. I’ve heard Leonard Nimoy himself speak of Gene Roddenberry’s anti-Semitism, for instance. And don‘t get me started on Jack London.)

Presumably similar considerations exist in literary SF. This doesn’t mean that SF is inherently racist, or at least that it didn’t start out that way, but the genre was basically written by upper-middle-class white folk for upper-middle-class white folk, starting at a time when such people simply didn’t think of other races at all. And if it’s a boy’s club, well, it was a vicious tooth-and-nail competition that was, in large part, aimed at ten-to-twelve year olds. Writers were writing what they hoped people would like mostly to make a living, not to make a political statement.

But they *did* make statements whenever possible - a woman president, a black president, racism, sexism, even homophobia on occasion - these all came up in a lot of pulp fiction, and the point was generally the same: Why ignore the talents and abilities of half the species? Of course I can think of lots of other examples, bad examples, ugly 1930s-racism, but in general SF is a liberal medium which tends to value progress over the same ‘ol same ‘ol. As we say in our mission statement, that’s as it should be, and not something we take issue with. My point being that in general, SF has been more ‘up with people’ than it’s been ‘down with anyone.’

But regardless of that, is SF racist *now?*

You know, it might be. It just might be. Take a look at Avatar, or “Dances With Smurfs” as some have called it: Whiteboy taken in by natives of some sort, becomes venerated by them, leads them in a war of survival against his own people. The difference is that in “Dances With Wolves” (A damn good movie, by the way), Kevin Costner doesn’t play out the whiteboy dream of becoming king of the minorities, whereas in Avatar, the protagonist *does.* The old “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” thing is going on here - a person who seems attractive in our culture is instantly adopted by a completely unrelated culture, and venerated, becoming high lord grand poobah over the toothless natives. If that ain’t a racist fantasy, I don’t know what is. It’s basically a metaphor for the imperialist propaganda about how “The darkies want us to dominate them. They’re better off than they were before, we bring them important things like water and taxation and - if Polynesian - we make their women wear clothes to hide the fact that they’re so much better looking than our women.” This is fundamentally wrong, and while everyone is up in arms about the basically ignorant greenie fable that is Avatar, they overlook the more legitimate concern about it which is the annoying message that Primitive Peoples Need A Honky To Tell ‘Em What To Do.

Think about it: On Star Trek, everyone’s white. Even the people who aren’t white are white in that they’re allowed no cultural deviation, no individual flavor or flair, nothing unique about them. We’ve talked a lot about the Chairman Mao vision of Star Trek’s utterly culture-free culture. So that’s racist in one way. Another way it’s racist is that Uhura is from Africa, and Sisco is from New Orleans, presumably because the producers heard tell that’s where dark people come from. Keiko O’Brien is from Japan, because that’s where Japanese people come from, and you *certainly* can’t have Japanese people living anywhere outside of their home country. That’s just nonsense. I remember Ted Lange talking about something similar once: When he got the part of “Isaac” on The Love Boat, they initially had his character coming from “The Mean Ghetto Streets of Brooklyn.” Ted asked why all black people on TV had to be from one place, and suggested Isaac should instead be a nice normal Midwestern guy, since Lange himself was a nice normal Midwestern guy, so he knew for sure that such people existed. The producers relented. Thus in Trek we’ve got simultaneous - and slightly contradictory - forms of racism going on: 1) Foreign culture is bad, unless it’s some hokey Kalifornia Uber Alles space people culture we made up, and 2) Backstory for ethnic characters must *Immediately* comply with offhand prejudices.

Lost has a problem with this, too: Walt has to come from a broken home because everybody knows black people *only* come from broken homes. Michael, Walt’s dad, is basically destitute and can’t support Walt because everybody knows black dads are no good. Ultimately, Michael goes nuts and murders people because everyone knows black people are violent, and he kills women because everyone knows black men blah blah blah blah blah. The producers of Lost were, themselves, called on the carpet for this, and brought Michael back to try and fix things, but really they only made it worse.

Thus, once again, we see Trek is in reality the exact opposite of what it pretends to be. Of course that’s a negative example. There are positive examples, too: Babylon 5 was another predominantly Caucasian show, but it made a point of including people in a slightly less didactic fashion: Stephen Franklin was black and a doctor without some kind of “Ghetto” past, nor is he from Africa. Susan Ivonova is a Russian Jew (And when was the last time you saw a Jew on Star Trek? I’m pretty sure never.), though granted she’s played by a Scottish American. They make a point on the show of pointing out that Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Pagans, and whatnot all still exist. People are allowed to have dissenting viewpoints. I don’t intend to get into a whole “B5 is better than Trek” thing here (Though clearly it is), but simply to point out that even on a predominatly whiteboy show, these matters can be handled better than they traditionally have been.

Static Shock, as superhero cartoon, did this sort of thing better than pretty much any other SF show, in that nearly all the characters on the show were Black, Hispanic, or Asian, with only occasional white people. They didn’t hang flags over this or scream ‘message’, the show just happened to take place in a Midwestern city that was mostly black. Of course Dwayne McDuffie, creator of Static Shock, is himself black and Midwestern, so obviously he’s got an advantage in handling these matters in a more sensitive fashion than the lunkheads elsewhere.

But McDuffie’s triumph actually points out a larger problem: why the hell *weren’t* there any cartoons - superhero or otherwise - aimed at black kids? Why aren’t there any SF shows aimed primarily at black people? Why the hell does every ‘exotic’ person on an SF show sound English? What the hell is wrong with a Jamaican accent? Or an African one? Seriously, the only SF show I can think of where most of the cast was black was “Homeboys from Outer Space,” and believe you me, that was a terrrrrrrrrible show.

Now, I’m not a class warrior. I’m not the kind of guy who tries to impose modern views on the past because as Austin Tappan Wright wrote, “The future is a foreign country that a man’s sons live in.” Even forty or fifty years ago, the mindset was so completely different in so many casual ways that it would be confounding to us. Obviously the past was more racist than the present, and obviously this was a bad thing, but you can’t say “I’m not going to watch Commando Cody, Space Ranger because there’s no gay people on it.” That’s imposing a modern perspective on effectively a foreign country, and it shuts you off from experiencing the good things that may be in there, interspersed between the bad ones. I don’t really believe that we can run around shouting at the past, basically.

Even so, it’s a valid question: Why no predominantly black or Asian SF?

“Well, black people don’t watch SF. It’s not a viable market for the product.”

Horsecrap!

We live in a capitalist country. If there’s not a market for something, we *make* a market for it. Do you think that Coke looks at a map and says “Well, you know, there’s just not much of a market for Coke in Utah, what with the Mormons not being allowed to drink Caffeine and all. I think we just need to resign ourselves to never being able to crack that market.” Hell, no, they don’t say that! They just come up with caffeine-free Coke and -bang- the market is open to them. If black people don’t like SF, it’s not because they’re stupid or uneducated (Seriously, how many white SF fans are anything but ignorant? Admit it!), or uninterested; it’s probably because no one has really tried to crack that market. My black friends - and I’m not one of those ’some of my best friends are black’ kind of guys, I’ve only got about three black friends at the moment - my black friends who like SF tell me that there’s an unmistakable aspect of samboism in a lot of SF, with minority characters who are obviously tokens. More bizarre is the liberal white establishment that makes these show actually feels good about it, and pats themselves on the back over it. Obviously that rubs some folks the wrong way.

“Ah,” you say, “But Whoopie Goldberg said that seeing Uhura on a show was the thing that let her know there were still black people in the future, and that it was ok to be black.” Well, true, and that’s fantastic and all, but that was also forty-five years ago. While it was a brave thing to have Nichelle Nichols on Trek in the mid-sixties, it wasn’t as brave as having Bill Cosby co-star on I Spy, nor was it as brave as having black sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” So let’s not oversell the moral fortitude of the folks who make SF, but let’s also not pretend that we can still brag about cutting edge stuff from a generation and a half back. We need to aspire to more. That was cool and all, but what have you done for me lately?

“Well, white people won’t watch a show that’s aimed at minorities.”

Horsecrap!

A lifetime has taught me that fans will gladly watch anything in the genre, regardless of who it’s aimed at, and we’ll generally go way the hell out of our way to do so. How much anime have we all watched? And *none* of that was intended for us. I’m knocking myself crazy right now trying to figure out how I’ll get a copy of the new live action “Space Battleship Yamato” movie, and clearly that’s not intended for anyone outside of Japan. I love Doctor Who, which is clearly not intended for American audiences. Hell, I’ll even sit through Torchwood, which is aimed at a British demographic so tiny that it may not actually exist at all.

If the cast is all white, us fans’ll watch. If the cast is all black, us fans’ll watch. If the cast is entirely composed of midget left handed lesbian albino athiests, us fans’ll watch. Why?

Because we like science fiction, jackass.

Don’t presume to tell us what is or isn’t meant for us, and you sure as hell are going to get into trouble if you start making blithe generalizations like “Minorities don’t like space ships.” That’s just stupid, and, of course, that kind of stupidity is the root of the problem.

“Well, this is a big serious problem, and you’re trivializing it by talking about cold-hearted marketing,” you say.

Horsecrap!

Something I’ve never felt our friends on the left have adequately understood is the beneficial aspects of capitalism. Yeah, sure, there’s some downsides, I’ll be the first to admit, but capitalism on the whole has been a good thing for the world. If I can make money off of you, then I’ll have some interest in you, and if you can make money off of me, then you’ll have some interest in me. True, that interest may be rooted in greed, but a little bit of greed is a good thing. A little bit of greed is what drives us to make the world a better place. And out of that initial pecuniary predilection, real understanding and concern may come. The more integrated into an economy any group becomes, the more a part of the society that group becomes. Business is colorblind - well, successful business is, anyway - and business builds bridges between groups because it can’t afford not to. Business finds commonalities, and then capitalizes on them, expands them, and from this develops more in common between people.

Predominantly Black or Hispanic shows have a potential immediate use in that they could open up a whole new consumer market for entertainment. It’s a guaranteed win since you’ll undoubtedly get at least some new viewers, and as for us hardcore fen, we’ll watch it regardless. We don’t give a damn about race. The long-term benefits are obvious: “Minorities” get shows that are more responsive to and representative of their communities, while “We” just get more shows in general, and over time it gives us all - minorities and boring white folk - something to talk about without the tedious underpinnings of liberal white guilt. Business is a better basis to build a relationship on than guilt, anyway.

So, Hollywood, I challenge you: instead of just talking, why not put your mouth where their money is?

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