Misogynoir in the Stars: Intersectionality and the World of Sci-Fi Films

Sean Posey I Society & Culture I Commentary I February 2nd, 2015

Thespian Lupita Nyong'o took Hollywood and the world by storm in 2013 when she skillfully crafted one of the most memorable performances in years in Twelve Years a Slave. This newcomer, a dark-skinned woman with roots in Kenya and Mexico, soon became the darling of the press and the fashion world. (She's twice since appeared on the cover of Vogue.) In 2014, she became only the sixth black actress to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

It soon became obvious, however, that Hollywood could not figure out what to do with Nyong'o. She appeared in a small role in the action film Non-Stop in 2014. But it remained unclear what roles she was up for next-despite having a newly minted Oscar and one of the highest public profiles of any young actor or actress in Hollywood. It was announced in 2015 that she would co-star in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the most eagerly anticipated movies in decades. Yet Nyong'o was venturing into a film series and a genre whose collective history has proven ambivalent at best, and hostile at worst, to women of color, especially black women. While the absence of black women in the universe of Star Wars remains highly problematic, the sci-fi genre as a whole continues to cling to monochromatic and racially disturbing visions of future worlds.

It matters who we see on-screen in imagined visions of the future. "As political texts, movies from Star Wars to Forrest Gump have their own set of ideological assumptions," Eric Greene observes. "It is easy to miss what we did not expect to find. Unnoticed and unquestioned assumptions are powerful, in part, precisely because they remain unnoticed and unquestioned, beyond the realm of critical examination." [1] Unquestioned assumptions about race, gender, and representation are among the core problems plaguing most sci-fi films today-problems rooted in the genre's troubled past.

The sci-fi genre jumped off the pages of pulp magazines and into the world of film with a vengeance after World War II. The coming of the Space Age enmeshed a generation of children in the futuristic worlds and civilizations presented in such films as Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. But these works were not unencumbered by the racial dynamics and mores of their time.

The history of black people in the world of sci-fi films dates back to the same time period. Released in 1959, The World, the Flesh and the Devil featured a young Harry Belafonte as the first major character of color in what had heretofore been an all-white genre. Belafonte's fore into sci-fi began, slowly but surely, to lead to more roles for black actors in space operas, dystopian dramas, and popcorn sci-fi flicks.

Still, sci-fi films reflected the racialized and gendered world in which they were created. It was not until the late 1960s (with the show Star Trek) that a black woman appeared in a prominent role in the world of celluloid sci-fi. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) represented the first real foray for black women into the world of sci-fi. As a key officer of the Star Ship Enterprise, Uhura was one of the very few characters black female characters on television. Uhura worked outside the realm of domestic help and was free from the usual mammy and Jezebel stereotypes which prevailed during that time period.

However, Nichols found herself with a part that proved to be less than dynamic. After she eventually submitted her resignation, Martin Luther King, who reminded her that she served as a role model for black women and girls everywhere, personally dissuaded Nichols from leaving the show. She stayed on and eventually starred in six of the original Star Trek films as well. Nichols' legacy remains today. Scholar Adilifu Nama remembers the impact Lieutenant Uhura had on him: "Her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise made the absence of black people in other science fiction television shows and films all the more conspicuous. I wanted to see more black people, not only on Stark Trek (if I had my wish, Uhura would have had her own science fiction show) but across the genre."[2]

In 1969, dancer and actress Paula Kelly appeared as a key member of a scientific team attempting to control a deadly extraterrestrial organism in Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. (Kelly also played a small role in the dystopian sci-fi thriller Soylent Green in 1973.) These were rare roles for black women in an age where sci-fi films were becoming increasingly important in the world of cinema.

In 1971, Rosalind Cash co-starred with Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, a prominent role but one that symbolized the problematic nature of the genre. In the film, Heston roams the planet as seemingly the last survivor of a biological war between Russia and China that decimates the world's population. Arrayed against Heston are a group of mutated survivors (both blacks and whites) dubbed "The Family." Unexpectedly, Heston meets a small group of human survivors in the ruins of Los Angeles. Among them is Cash, who eventually begins a relationship with the last man on Earth.

According to author Bonnie Noonan, The Omega Man operated "as a coded response to contemporary racial tensions" with "pertinent comparisons between the film's nonhuman creatures and the circumstances of black Americans."[3] In viewing the love scene between Cash and Heston, Adilifu Nama considers The Omega Man notable "because of how clearly it imagines and associates race mixing with dire post-apocalyptic consequences."[4] While The Omega Man offers an interesting spin on the fears surrounding Black Power and Cold War annihilation fantasies, it leaves limited room for the agency of Cash as a black woman.

While the early 1970s left little space for black actors in sci-fi films, the era did witness the beginnings of what came to be called Afrofuturism. The first stirrings of Afrofuturism emerged from the eclectic work of Sun Ra, a jazz musician who also dabbled in theater and film. Born Herman Poole Blount, Sun Ra, as he later became known, claimed that he hailed from Saturn. Blount invented an elaborate mythology around himself that incorporated many of what became the main features of American science fiction: UFOs, close encounters of the third kind, etc.

The 1974 film Space is the Place, co-written by Sun Ra, brought a predominately black cast to the world of sci-fi for the first time. The film chronicles Ra's efforts to transport black people to another planet while doing battle with "The Overseer," a pimp attempting to derail the grand fate of the black race in space. But like many offerings from the Black Power era, black women are in the background.

It has instead been writers such as Octavia Butler, and musicians from Missy Elliott to Janelle Monáe, who have incorporated women into "a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens," as artist Ingrid LaFleur describes Afrofuturism. [5] For although the sci-fi films of the later 1970s opened up a door (albeit slightly) for women, black women were conspicuously absent.

In 1979, Ridley Scott's Alien helped revolutionized roles for women in sci-fi-creating the tough, determined character of Ellen Ripley, who would reappear in numerous sequels. But it was the Star Wars films series and Star Trek-both the films featuring the original cast and subsequent television spin-offs-that truly molded how women and race were viewed in sci-fi films.

It is no exaggeration to say the George Lucas' Star Wars helped midwife what Sean Redmond calls our "science fiction textured world." [6] The epic, Manichean space opera and it sequels and prequels have since influenced how generations of filmgoers view the world of science fiction. And though Star Wars borrows from a diverse range of cultural archetypes, myths, and religions, the cast and characters (save for the wide array of creatures and alien species) continue to be notable for their lack of diversity.

Before he became known for the Star Wars saga, George Lucas directed one of the more challenging and visually inventive sci-fi films of the 1970s. In THX 1138, Lucas' directorial debut, humanity is trapped in a dystopian police state where physical and emotional relationships are forbidden. Drugs are administered to control workers. Sex is forbidden (those engaging in physical relationships are deemed "Erotics"), but masturbation via machine is apparently allowed. The only black woman in the film appears as a nude, gyrating hologram, which the protagonist (played by Robert Duvall) uses as his only apparent means of sexual release. Black men appear only as holograms on the state "network." It is tantalizingly unclear what Lucas was trying to say about race in the future, if anything, with the holograms, or if they were just disturbing racial stereotypes marring an otherwise thoughtful film. Lucas' subsequent work on his galactic space opera, however, provides us with few answers.

Black women continued to be almost entirely absent in Lucas' subsequent imagined universe of the Force. The heroic and villainous groups inStar Wars look like battling European nations throughout the first film and into the first sequence of The Empire Strikes Back set on the planet Hoth. During the second half of Empire, we are introduced to Lando Calrissian, the administrator of the picturesque Cloud City. Played by the charismatic Billy Dee Williams, Calrissian was the first of several black male characters to appear in the series-including Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu and John Boyega as one of the leads in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But aside from a non-speaking role on the Jedi Council, black women more or less do not exist in "a galaxy far, far away."

The universe portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation, like the original Star Trek, depicts a much deeper breadth of the human family. Black actors such as Paul Winfield, Anthony Montgomery, Avery Brooks, Brock Peters, Levar Burton, Tim Russ, and Michael Dorn (as Lieutenant Worf) appear either in the Star Trek movies, Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Star Trek: Enterprise.

Yet black women, much as in the Star Wars universe, are largely absent. Whoopi Goldberg's character Guinan is a notable exception. A member of a race of "listeners" called El-Aurian, Goldberg's character serves primarily as a bartender and dispenser of advice, but she is given more substantive things to do throughout the show. Yet despite Gene Roddenberry's stated intention to create a diverse cast for a more hopeful future, the show's aspirations come up short.

Sociologist Barbara Omolade's considers Star Trek's inclusion issues to be less problematic than the hierarchy presented in the show(s) themselves: "In this future world, people of color will have been divested of their cultures and disconnected from their communities. Women of color will be like Lieutenant Uhura, communications specialist of the Starship Enterprise under Captain James Kirk, functioning within the culture and machines of Western man."[7]

The 1990s brought sci-fi heroines Sarah Connor (Terminator II: Judgment Day), Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element), Carrie-Anne Moss ( The Matrix), and Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) to the big and small screens. However, black women were seemingly nowhere to be found. The last two films in The Matrix film trilogy finally opened up a space for both African Americans-and black women specifically-in blockbuster sci-fi films.

According to Ytasha Womack, "The Matrix included a cast of multiethnic characters, the polar opposite of the legacy of homogenous sci-fi depictions so great that even film critic Roger Ebert questioned whether The Matrix creators envisioned a future world dominated by black people." [8] Gloria Foster and Mary Alice, both veteran black actresses, appear in the crucial role of the Oracle. Nona Gaye, Gina Torres, and Jada Pinkett Smith (playing another key character) all appear in the trilogy as well. And black women also serve as background characters in the last human city of Zion. Quite unlike the world of Star Wars or Star Trek, black women are seen as part of a future humanity; they occupy a space in an imagined world.

In comparison to The Matrix trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens depicts a sci-fi universe that isn't far removed racially from the original trilogy. Nor did director J.J. Abrams appear to know what to do with Lupita Nyong'o, an Academy Award winning actress who appears in a small role as a CGI character. Not only is the Star Wars series increasingly out of original ideas, but it is also still stuck with a 1970's casting mentality.

The absence of black women in cinematic visions of the future is matched by the problematic position occupied by black women in contemporary culture. The casting of Hollywood sci-fi films might seem trivial, but the central role occupied by art and popular culture not only reflects societal values and power structures-it also helps shape them. Even the best sci-fi films are products of their time, and far too often they project racial structural hierarchies into the future. "Science fiction films can show us both what we aspire to and what we must struggle against," writes Bonnie Noonan. If we are to advance a struggle for genuine cultural change, we must organize not just for inclusive casting, but also for spaces for new filmmakers, writers, and actresses seeking to advance the struggle both today and in "galaxies far, far away."


[1] Eric Greene, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and American Culture (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), XI.

[2] Adilfu Nama, Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 2.

[3] Bonnie Noonan, Gender in Science Fiction Films, 1964-1979: A Critical Study (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015), 106.

[4] Nama, 47.

[5] Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013), 9.

[6] Sean Redmond, editor, Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), IX.

[7] Elyce Rae Helford, Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 3.

[8] Womack, 8.