Double Others: GeekGirlCon ’14 panel recap
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.
The “Double Others” panel was one of the highlights of my weekend at GeekGirlCon ‘14. In case you couldn’t make it, here’s a recap of its exploration of the depiction of non-humans in genre fiction.
Our panelists defined the “double other” as a character in genre fiction who is both a person of color and non-human–alien, vampire, werewolf, mutant, etc. They called on the audience to list some examples and got a variety of replies: Worf and Tuvok from Star Trek; Gamora, Drax, and Blade from the Marvel comics and movies; Lister and Cat from Red Dwarf; Tara from True Blood; the entire werewolf clan from Twilight.
When a non-human character is played by an actor of color, it becomes hard for the viewer, living as we do in a racist society, to separate our own ideas of race from the constructed fantasy world.
Take the Twilight werewolves, for example. As panelist Adverbia pointed out, their culture is depicted as being closely tied to Native American stereotypes, with their mysticism and connection to the land. She decried this as a lazy storytelling shortcut to explain away any “weirdness.” Given the context that the story is written by a Mormon author, this becomes especially problematic; one Mormon belief is that their Manifest Destiny is to displace Native American peoples.
These types of characters are interesting because they pile otherness on top of otherness, giving the writers what the panel described as a two-fer. Classic science-fiction and fantasy of the 1960s and 70s often wanted to talk about race, but had to hide that content behind aliens, vampires, and monsters. If a character is alien and a person of color, they only need to address race obliquely, through metaphor.
A more recent example of this is the James Cameron movie Avatar, which Adverbia described as “Dances With Wolves… in space.” Rather than directly addressing the issue of white colonists driving out the Native peoples of the Americas, the movie takes the whole thing, wraps it up in a bundle of metaphor, and turns the natives into aliens. Then, it casts Zoe Saldana, a multi-racial woman of color, in the main alien role.
As Raychelle pointed out, it’s not exactly a secret metaphor.
One major problem with these types of depictions is that the alien cultures in question are often presented as monoliths. On Babylon 5, Stephen explained, there would typically be one representative of each alien race. Each race would have one universal religion–contrast that with all the hundreds of human religions that exist. A similar trend exists on Star Trek, in all its incarnations.
These monolithic alien races are also very often explicitly influenced by specific human cultures, usually people of color. Even when they’re influenced by majority-white cultures (Klingons are Space Vikings, after all), they’re often played by actors of color, just to emphasize their otherness.
When writers are coming up with alien cultures, they often turn to human cultures outside their own as a template, and since so many Hollywood writers are white, that usually means minority cultures. Is it so hard, Adverbia asked, to conceive of non-humanoid aliens, or alien cultures not based off people of color?
Adverbia gave the example of the 1985 film Enemy Mine, in which the human, played by Dennis Quaid, meets the alien Jeriba Shigan, played by Louis Gossett Jr. (who Adverbia described as the ‘It’ minority actor at the time). The Dracs are a reptilian race; they have no gender, and reproduce by parthenogenesis. There’s no reason to link them to specific human cultures. And yet, even though the actors are completely covered in make-up, both Jeriba Shigan and his son Zammis are played by black men.
Hiring actors of color, and then covering them in make-up, means that real people of color still do not see themselves represented on-screen. To quote panelist Danielle Lee, “You can be there, but let’s cover you up”–and the film still gets points for diversity. Panelist Kristine Hassell added that in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy; three of the five main actors were people of color, not that you’d know it by looking at them. (For the record, they are Dave Bautista, who played Drax the Destroyer; Vin Diesel, who played Groot; and Zoe Saldana (again), who played Gamora.)
In addition to the grand old tradition of casting actors of color as non-humans, there are many examples of racialized depictions of aliens, no matter who is playing them. The panel engaged in a thought exercise: In Thundercats, why do we read Panthro as black? Danielle gave a list of markers that lead us to this conclusion. Some were physical–his deeper voice, broader features, and blue-black coloring. Others were socio-economic and cultural cues, such as his vernacular, and his status as the team work-horse–a role often reserved for black men in fiction.
Some depictions go all the way through ‘racialized’ and into ‘racist stereotypes’. Raychelle only had to mention the name Jar Jar Binks to elicit a huge groan from the audience. Jar Jar harkens back to the tradition of minstrelsy (note: racist imagery at the link) in his speech, his body language, and his deference to the humans, who represent white people in this analogy. How much of this interpretation, Raychelle asked, is intentional, and how much is our own projection? How do people from other countries read the depictions of race in US media? At the very least, it’s insensitive.
Some stereotyped depictions, such as the Twilight werewolves, other non-humans based on Native Americans, or those inspired by Asian cultures, are seen as positive stereotypes. The problem there, Danielle clarified, is not whether the stereotype is good or bad, but whether it boxes real people into a certain role. It takes away people’s ability to define themselves. Also, Adverbia said, attributing characters’ skills to their otherness diminishes their accomplishments. For example, like the rest of her people, Zoe Saldana’s character in Avatar is seen as a naturally excellent archer, which downplays all the hard work she’s put into becoming that good.
When a character is a double other, the writers often pile layer upon layer of otherness onto that one character, meaning that they carry all the weight of the diversity checklist. One example is B’Elanna Torres from Star Trek: Voyager. Not only is she of both Klingon and human heritage, she’s played by Latina actress Roxann Dawson. She’s also a female engineer, a former member of the Maquis (a resistance group formed to fight against the oppressive Cardassians), and ends up in an interracial marriage. Danielle described this as “piling on the pathology.”
B’Elanna’s character plays strongly into real world tropes such as the tragic mulatto–she’s caught between the human and Klingon worlds, between her Maquis and her Federation loyalties. In each case, she fears non-acceptance by both sides.
The problem with many of these stereotypes is that they strip the character of agency; rather than being allowed to define themselves, their identity is determined by whether an external group accepts or rejects them.
Blade, another character caught between two worlds (he is half-human, half-vampire), is also deprived of agency. His older, white mentor holds the keys to his life, and to the medication he needs. He dictates where Blade is going next.
An audience member pointed out in the Q&A that what writers are doing in cases like these is co-opting the experiences of marginalized people and adding the non-human element to make it more palatable for white viewers. Adverbia added that this means they don’t have to address those experiences directly, because they’re busy addressing the monstrous element of the characters.
As a counterpoint to these tropes, another audience member brought up examples of people of color expressing their own point of view through non-human characters. Afrofuturism is an Afrocentric cultural aesthetic spanning many media, from books to movies to music. Musical artists Janelle Monae and Grace Jones are both noted for creating their own sci-fi personae to tell their own stories, infused and overlain with sci-fi elements. In this way, people of color are reasserting their own agency in the face of a long tradition of erasing and burying their stories under layers of alien makeup.
If this panel, and others like it, sound like your cup of Klingon blood wine, you can grab your passes for GeekGirlCon ‘15!