Why the “Space Racist” Trope Is Bad for Women of Color
As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that the struggle for accurate representation in the media I so fervently consume is not one with an end in sight. Victorian soldiers hopping aboard an alien spacecraft to live on Mars amongst walking, talking lizards? A perfectly plausible scenario in the eyes of Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss. One of those Victorian soldiers just happening to be a black man? Hmm. Better send an email to your coworkers doubting the casting because, to quote Gatiss: “I don’t think we can do this … there weren’t any black soldiers in Victoria’s army.”
A year or two ago, this would have prompted a visceral reaction from me and would likely have resulted in several angry tweets and maybe even a rant or two on Tumblr. Nowadays, things like this are just par for the course. White creators would rather write about a race of war-hungry lizards living on Mars in harmony with Victorian soldiers than dare to imagine a black person included in their fantasy worlds.
“But Saffron,” I hear you cry. “What about Bill?” And to that I say: yes, let’s talk about Bill.
When I found out Pearl Mackie had been cast as the Doctor’s companion in the current series of Doctor Who, I was ridiculously excited and, after I discovered Mackie’s character, Bill, would be a lesbian, I think I may have actually shed a tear. A black lesbian with an afro in the TARDIS, saving the world and protecting humanity alongside the Doctor? I’m still afraid one day I’m going to wake up and discover this has all been a wonderful fever dream.
Mackie has done an absolutely fantastic job playing Bill—so fantastic that I have jokingly (except it’s not really a joke) renamed Who “The Bill Potts Show” in my head. Her chemistry with Capaldi’s Doctor is brilliant, and she brings a refreshing je ne sais quoi that I felt was desperately missing during the last season or two. In short, I adore Bill with all my heart. I actually think she might be the first character in a piece of science fiction media that I can truly see a part of myself in, which is why it hurts even more when I see how the writers treat her on occasion.
In her role as the Doctor’s companion, Bill is regularly thrown into situations where war-hungry lizards, dead monks, wooden women, and blue men are commonplace. For the most part, Bill reacts to the aliens around her like I imagine most people would in her situation. She’s shocked, surprised, awed, and maybe stares a little too much, but that is what we’ve come to expect from the Doctor’s companions. So why is it that Bill is the only companion branded a racist for her reaction to seeing an alien with entirely blue skin?
Before I can answer that question, I want to rewind back two episodes. In “Thin Ice,” an episode set in 1814 where an alien is found trapped under the frozen Thames, Bill makes a point to ask the Doctor whether it will be alright for her, as a black woman, to be wandering around England in the 1800s. The Doctor, rightfully, tells her history isn’t as white as everyone is led to believe, and the episode continues. Later on, we meet Lord Sutcliffe, the villain behind the nefarious plot to feed Londoners to the alien so it can poop out a powerful replacement for coal. (I still maintain that there were probably many, many ways to achieve that without murdering people, but I digress.) Upon seeing Bill, Sutcliffe begins to launch into a racist tirade, and the Doctor punches him in the face. Yay! My point here is that, in the canon of Doctor Who, it has already been addressed—right here—that Bill knows exactly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discriminatory behavior and prejudice because of her race.
And yet, that same Bill who was so wary about racist remarks upon landing in England in the 1800s reacts in a discriminatory way to a blue alien in “Oxygen”—or, at least, the narrative expects us to interpret her reaction in this way.
Upon seeing Dahh-Ren, the alien with entirely blue skin, Bill is visibly startled and manages to splutter out a “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting—” before she is cut off. At first glance there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, and it would be perfectly fine within the context of Bill being a naive human who hasn’t had much contact with aliens before. This sort of scenario has happened with pretty much all the companions as far as I know, and it’s to be expected. But instead of keeping this air of wonder and astonishment within the context of Bill simply being awed by Dahh-Ren, the writers take it a step further.
Dahh-Ren labels Bill “a racist” and Bill promptly responds with an indignant, “It’s just … I haven’t seen many, well, any of your people before.” To black people, this excuse will sound irritatingly familiar. It’s the go-to line for racists who insist they’re anything but, when they try to touch your hair, ask rude and invasive questions, or simply just treat you like some sort of circus attraction.
I understand that it was supposed to be a throwaway line written to inject a bit of lightheartedness to an otherwise fairly dire scene, but it was wholly unnecessary. People staring at you is irritating whatever the context, and Dahh-Ren could have reacted to Bill’s insensitivity in any number of ways without having to brand her a racist.
And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen what I’m tentatively labelling the “space racist” trope attached to black or black-coded characters in recent science fiction media.
In Voltron: Legendary Defender, Princess Allura is no longer a white, blonde woman, as she was in earlier iterations of the show, but a black-coded woman. (Since Allura isn’t a human, there’s an argument to be made that human racial coding doesn’t apply to her.) Allura’s people, the Alteans, are the victims of a brutal genocide by another race of aliens called the Galra. Allura and her aide, Coran, are thought to be only two surviving Alteans left in the universe. Given this backstory, I don’t think anyone would blame her for harboring a pretty big grudge against the Galra—especially when you factor in that, for Allura and Coran, the genocide of their people is painfully recent, as they’ve been in cryosleep for the last 10,000 years.
But let’s fast forward a bit. After fighting against the Galra for several days/weeks/months/years, (who knows—timing is not VLD’s strong point), they discover one of their teammates is actually half Galra and they’re actually going to have work with a splinter group of “good” Galra. Allura, understandably, doesn’t react well to this. She shuts out the half-Galra teammate and refuses to cooperate positively with the “good” Galra.
Most people would understand that Allura is currently wracked with grief from the deaths of her friends, family, and her entire planet, and would not hold this against her. Not the VLD writers.
Once again, we have a character, who would likely be on the receiving end of racist remarks and discrimination in a real life situation, portrayed as the ignorant aggressor, guilty of perpetrating this prejudice. VLD even goes so far as to have Allura apologize and forgive her oppressors with little to no consideration for her own feelings and trauma.
I also think it’s interesting to note that Coran, a white-coded male and the other sole Altean survivor, is not given the same treatment. He is portrayed as rational and doesn’t have any lingering prejudice towards the Galra, despite going through the exact same things as Allura.
Do you see the unpleasant trend emerging here? Because I do. The dearth of women of color in science fiction and fantasy is a well-documented struggle, and I am always ridiculously pleased when WOC (black women in particular) are given significant roles in shows, books, and films, but not like this.
It feels like we’ve been hounding creators to include us in their content for so long and now they’re finally starting to listen, but there’s a catch. They don’t truly want us in their fantasy worlds, where talking lizards and sentient robot lions can come and go as they please, so if we’re going to demand they include us, then they’re going to teach us a lesson while doing so.
When I see characters like Bill and Allura being branded as “racist” for actions their white counterparts are never chastised for, it feels like these creators are laughing at us—like they’re sneering at me and every other black person out there who so desperately want to see ourselves reflected in our favourite shows and characters, saying “See, you’d be racist, too, if given the chance.”
Of course, this isn’t to say creators can’t explore racism and other types of prejudice in their work, but when done like this, it ignores all the nuance that surrounds simply existing as a black woman in this world and attempts to flip the racism script back on us, almost like a punishment for daring to ask for representation in the media we love.
Saffron is a London-based writer who spends far too much time on Twitter (@safrasheri) ranting about fictional characters and explaining to the world why Shark Tale is clearly the superior animated fish movie. She’s a fan of all things fantasy, hates writing about herself in the third person, and is happiest with a book in one hand and a glass of cranberry juice in the other.
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