Film Forward

Diversity In Science Fiction Is Improving, But There's Still A Long Way To Travel

"Support the projects you want to see more of."

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

Science fiction allows us to look into the future of humanity, examine the pros and cons of advanced technology, and travel to galaxies far, far away. Because of its speculative, often fantastical nature, it also provides a unique opportunity for artists to present a diverse cast of characters and cultures. 

In fact, actress Zoe Saldana recently told A Plus that acting as non-human characters in films such as Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy has offered her opportunities that may not be available to her elsewhere. "When the roles provided for me on Earth are limited, then space felt like the right place to go," she said.

Unfortunately, throughout the genre's history, space hasn't always been a welcome place for people of color, and neither have many of the other universes and timelines science fiction explores.

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"What irritates me is that science fiction is the place where you could have us," Westworld and Star Wars actress Thandie Newton told the New York Times. "Science fiction is a projection of a time that hasn't even happened, so if you don't populate that place with people of different skin tones, shame on you."

The good news is that, in recent years, sci-fi fans have witnessed a number of positive shifts across film and television — from Star Trek: Discovery's powerful women of color to the international and LGBTQ-inclusive Sense8, as well as the female characters anchoring the new Star Wars releases, and the Black superheroes at the center of Marvel's Black Panther and Luke Cage.

"We've had a slow sprinkling of diversity over the years, but it's now becoming a main ingredient," Amanda Ray, founder and COO of the Multicultural Sci-Fi Organization, told A Plus. She attributed this progress in part to the changing "face" of the sci-fi audience, as more women and people of color voice their support for the genre and prove it's not just White men who enjoy these stories.

Mike Le of Racebending.com agreed that the genre has recently made some positive strides, particularly in the representation of Black people and White women. However, he stressed that there is still "a very long way to go" in the representation of other groups.

"Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans still struggle to have our faces and voices represented in ways that challenge rather than reaffirm stereotype," Le told A Plus. "Western media has still failed to reckon with its Orientalist roots. Marvel, for example, repeatedly cashes in on exoticizing Asian culture and people. Wolverine, Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Dr. Strange all feature bizarre caricatures of Asian culture and a notable absence of nuanced roles for Asian American men. And these works regularly fall back on dragon lady storylines for their Asian American women characters."

Ray also acknowledged that there is room for improvement, particularly behind-the-scenes, as she advocated for more diverse writers and a marketing strategy which acknowledges underrepresented groups. 

"Sometimes traditional marketing strategies can miss a large segment of the audience," she shared. "But when networks, studios and brands work with smaller, fan-driven sci-fi organizations, this can be much more effective." The Multicultural Sci-Fi Organization, for example, worked with HBO this year for an advanced screening of Westworld, bringing out a "very diverse audience" for a panel featuring Asian actor Leonardo Nam.

Of course, with added diversity frequently comes added backlash. Recently, the Star Wars fanbase has been a hub of controversy as some fans continue to complain about the inclusion of people of color and the larger role of women in the newer movies. A self-proclaimed "chauvinist edit" of The Last Jedi even removed female representation from the film. More recently, Asian American actress Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose in the film, was bullied off social media.

Le attributes this type of response to "entitlement," and the conflation of equality with oppression, as White male fans struggle with no longer seeing themselves at the center of their favorite series.

"From the media consumed in television and comic books to the roles young White boys feel total ownership of on the playground, the message has always been: White men get to play the lead," Le told A Plus. "They get to be Superman, Batman, Captain America, Iron Man. They turn the implicit Hollywood message into a very explicit message of exclusion when young children of other backgrounds try to take on the lead: the leading role is not for you. Invent your 'own' role, we get ownership of all the most important roles with decades of pop cultural currency. We are entitled to this generational legacy of prominence born in the era of segregation."

"I think that most people won't have a problem with seeing more diversity in sci-fi, when it's done right," Ray said. "It's a delicate balance of gently broadening the minds of older core sci-fi fans and accurately portraying the world younger generations are experiencing now."

Star Wars has also faced criticism from a different perspective, as some fans continue to point out that women of color haven't been afforded many prominent roles in the series, and the movie's directors and writers are overwhelmingly White and male. Ray told A Plus she thinks Star Wars is "still struggling with diversity," and expressed skepticism over the recent announcement of Jon Favreau as the writer-producer behind an upcoming series in the franchise.

"They'll have to do more than just throw us a few token Black, Asian or female writers in the room to make up for hiring yet another White male to direct this show, and convince us this is going to be different," she said. 

When sci-fi fans use their voices (and their wallets) to promote positive change rather than toxicity, progress is possible. Both Le and Ray suggested social media as a great option for fans to share their support for diverse sci-fi — as well as their criticisms. "It's very important to point out areas in these sci-fi stories that are flat out wrong and offensive," Ray told A Plus. "It's the only way they can learn from their mistakes."

"Speak with your dollars," Le said. "Show up. Put in the work. Put in the sweat. Support the projects you want to see more of." He added his belief that Hollywood "will eventually get the message as films with diverse casts continue to outperform non-diverse casts."

Both the Multicultural Sci-Fi Organization and Racebending are working to spread that message. MCSFO has a podcast discussing diversity in sci-fi, in addition to hosting the annual Atlanta Sci-Fi Film Festival, which encourages diversity of "culture, gender, sexual orientation and disability," and provides a place for independent filmmakers to showcase their work.

Racebending, meanwhile, was founded by fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender who were "appalled" by the film adaptation's whitewashed casting. The group continues to speak out against offensive onscreen portrayals and encourages better representation in Hollywood.

"Science fiction is one of the most important storytelling genres. It allows us to perceive how we see ourselves in the future," Ray told A Plus. "It can also be a powerful tool for developing nations to see their lives in a more favorable light in the near future, in order to create it."

Sci-fi provides infinite possibility, and it's about time Hollywood took advantage of it.

Cover image: Jan Thijs / CBS

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