Why Sci-fi/Fantasy Has the Best Representation of Black Women in Entertainment
An examination of the importance and impact of characters like Uhura, Guinan, Storm and Dora Milaje.
When Javicia Leslie was announced as The CW’s new Batwoman, Black girl nerds everywhere rejoiced. Then, we braced ourselves for the impact. We knew the backlash was coming, because it always does.
Anytime a character is announced with a Black actress playing her or a Black woman is introduced into a popular franchise, the internet is flooded with racist comments from trolls disguised as “real fans.” What these so-called “fans” fail to realize is that sci-fi and fantasy have always provided the best representation of Black women in entertainment.
It all started with Uhura.
Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was seen on the bridge of the USS Enterprise every week for three seasons. When Nichols wanted to leave the show, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her she was too important and needed to continue doing the series. He reportedly told her, “You cannot do that. … For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.”
Uhura was the ship’s chief communications officer, but could often be seen doing other jobs on the bridge. She also frequently worked in the field on away teams, even taking command when male crew members are controlled by sirens. The modern version, played by Zoe Saldana, is also depicted as a linguistics specialist. Her representation as an equal member of the crew paved the way for the impact Black women have in sci-fi/fantasy.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Black women were often portrayed as maids, secretaries or hookers. Uhura could only be seen as an equal because Star Trek was “just” a sci-fi show. It wasn’t the real world. However, for Black women, those fantasy worlds have become extremely important. Sci-fi/fantasy is one of the rare forms of entertainment that shows a broader spectrum of Black women.
In The CW’s Arrowverse superhero franchise, Iris West is a reporter, Charlie is a punk rock goddess of fate, Jennifer Pierce is a high school athlete, Anissa Pierce is a teacher/freedom fighter, and Lynn Stewart is a doctor specializing in metahuman biology. They’re allowed to show a full range of emotions and have life experiences that don’t fit into a predetermined mold.
Doctor Who, the longest-running sci-fi series in television history, made news when Freema Agyeman was cast as The Doctor’s new companion during season three of the revival. There were quite a few fans who had a problem with Martha Jones traveling in the TARDIS.
Martha was a medical student who started out as a sidekick, but over time developed into a hero in her own right. She stared down Daleks, Sontarans, and the Family of Blood and saved the world from The Master. Since she traveled with The Doctor between Rose and Donna, Martha’s contributions are sometimes overlooked. However, following his heartache over separating from Rose, she was the one who brought him back down to Earth, so to speak.
On AMC’s The Walking Dead, we’ve seen Michonne evolve from a cold, lone warrior to a mother who also leads and takes care of her friends. This wide expanse of varied characterization is what draws Black women to the genre.
Continuing Star Trek’s tradition of featuring Black women in influential roles, The Next Generation’s Guinan was specifically created for longtime fan Whoopi Goldberg. In fact, it was Nichols’ performance as Uhura that made her love the show. According to StarTrek.com, Goldberg said, “Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Having an award winner like Goldberg take on the role of the wise, mysterious Guinan lends even more credibility to the character, as well as the relationship between her and Picard. Following a recent personal invitation from Patrick Stewart on The View, Goldberg is set to return as Guinan in season two of Star Trek: Picard.
From Uhura to Guinan to Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham, Trek has consistently been at the forefront of inclusivity. The franchise has always portrayed its female characters as well rounded, complex women who can handle themselves in any situation. Black women often live by the motto “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.” This is the story of Michael Burnham’s life.
Despite being incarcerated for treason, her scientific genius is needed by the captain of the Discovery, so she is reinstated to Starfleet. She was adopted by Sarek and grew up in the Vulcan culture as the first human to attend the Vulcan Science Academy, so her character also speaks to the blending of worlds that happens to Black women in certain workplaces. These are depictions that are rarely found in straightforward drama.
Despite theses instances of inclusion and many more, sci-fi and fantasy are by no means immune to the mistakes of other genres. In many cases, these women are the only people of color in the story, which makes them even more important.
This is particularly glaring on the biggest fantasy show in the world, HBO’s Game of Thrones. Since Missandei and Grey Worm were the only Black characters in the main cast, for many viewers, their stories felt more essential to the series’ overall arc.
Missandei could’ve just been a background player in Daenerys’ story, but Nathalie Emmanuel’s quiet power made her central to Dany’s world. Her romance with Grey Worm gave both characters backgrounds and motivations separate from their queen’s. She was so important that losing her sent the Mother of Dragons into a Mad Queen downward spiral. Without Missandei, we may have been less invested in Daenerys’ journey.
Even when Black women haven’t been able to see the best portrayals of themselves in movies and television, they’ve had comic books like the X-Men and Black Panther showcasing their strength and beauty to the world. Through all the stories featuring her, Storm has always been portrayed as the conscience of the X-Men. Like all Black women, Ororo Munroe is the one who keeps her family together through the constant prejudice of the outside world.
When they started making the movies and superstar Halle Berry took on the role, Storm became even more influential. She has the power to control the weather, which means an African woman is basically depicted as mother nature. When Storm finally does join the MCU, she will likely have some interaction with the women of Wakanda: Queen Ramonda, played by the legendary Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright’s teenage genius Shuri, Lupita Nyong’o as forward-thinking spy Nakia, and Danai Gurira as yet another awesome warrior: General Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje.
T’Challa and Killmonger are the central focus of Black Panther, but it’s Ramonda, Shuri, Nakia and Okoye that draw the audience in and make them feel like they’re in Wakanda. They are the true heart and soul of the story, and they’re who we want to spend more time with.
As the world finally reckons with its racist history, it’s more important than ever to see the influence and impact of these women on the world. Perhaps we’re taking the first steps toward the enlightened, non-prejudicial Star Trek future. As we look forward to new seasons of Star Trek: Picard, Star Trek: Discovery, Batwoman, Black Lightning, The Flash, Westworld, and big-screen premieres of Black Panther 2 and new X-Men films, it feels like Black women have a lot to be excited about when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy.
(featured image: CBS)
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