- We are not being represented, even in a genre that lends itself to the anarchic.
In the sharp, fast-paced new world of special effects, we seem capable of imagining and imaging the most fantastical ideas. Superheroes, dragons, clones, aliens, zombies, apocalypse — all of these are possible in our media. We as a species, and especially within the far-reaching media of Western society, are pushing the limits of the imagination and the impossible.
Pick up any list of bestsellers today and you’ll find the clear truth that speculative fiction is big right now. It’s been popular for generations, but especially now, as advances in technology and socio-cultural criticism have led naturally to an enthusiasm for the many manifestations of the broad genre: there are permutations of the definition, but largely speculative fiction can include science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, alternative history, etc. It’s the opposite of what we understand to be “realistic” fiction.
Speculative fiction is inherently political and it always has been.
At its highest potential, speculative fiction highlights the abnormality of what we envision as “normal.” Across its many genres, speculative fiction has served as cultural criticism. This is still evident in a lot of our tropes.
Alien narratives are often written to serve as the Western fear of karma, of becoming the colonizer rather than the colonized, of cosmic retribution for historical atrocities, and they often put forth a call to action to unite against the dangerous alien threat (see: Independence Day: Resurgence), pushing patriotism and white supremacy.
Western superheroes emerged out of a war-torn America, evidencing a lack of trust in established authority. Popular vampire narratives began with a fear of the bloodsucking, effeminate foreigner, dwarves with Jewish stereotypes, etc.
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Mainstream speculative media still others us.
Speculative fiction doesn’t by any means exist in a vacuum; the narratives are the products of and the responses to contemporary thought. Take how alien narratives have evolved. Look at space-age science fiction before the space race, before Sputnik. The narratives were hopeful, silly, filled with wonder and awe — Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), arguably the first science fiction film, for example, where they made it to the moon by launching a massive cannon. They were adventure narratives.
Once we actually made it to space and found it empty, found the exploration a breeding ground for political and economic risk, the perspectives shifted. Now, speculative fiction is apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic. Our viewpoints have changed to reflect our cultural consciousness — and yet queer, disabled, and non-white people still don’t make it into the future!
Those stories are still largely cis, het, white, straight, and able bodied. More than that, they still push tired, predictable, destructive, and reductive narratives of heteronormativity, heterosexism, cissexism, colonialism, and white supremacy. They may be thinly veiled with lasers or dinosaurs, but they push toxic propaganda nonetheless.
This is important.
When they choose to tell our stories, they erase us out of it or flatten it.
When mainstream media envisions the future, it predicts and portrays worlds in which fat, queer, nonwhite, and disabled people do not exist.
If we do exist, we are reduced to sidekicks, moral compasses, tropes like the Magical Negro, and stereotypes. Look at Sense8, lauded for its “diverse” cast, which still relies on the narrative of the angry vengeful quiet Asian, the hotheaded buff gay Latino, the devout Hindu doctor. Look at the latest Star Trek, the choice to make Sulu gay stirring enough controversy that it eclipsed the fact that if you blink, you’ll miss the shot of his husband.
Look at the appropriation of The Forest, reducing a fraught, tragic, and sharply Japanese narrative into a white-washed horror story. Look at the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell, Gods and Monsters, The Great Wall, Doctor Strange; the white guilt wish fulfillment of Django and The Legend of Tarzan. The star-studded Passengers still envisions a white-centric future, and embeds rape culture into its very plot. It’s everywhere, it’s ingrained in our culture — and more than that, in our cultural imagination.
Wookiees and time travel are apparently more believable than a lesbian who makes it to the end of the story. More palatable than an Asian character with the least bit of unstereotyped nuance, more allegedly marketable than an Asian character actually played by an Asian actor (yeah, those are all different links, about films within the past or upcoming year). More marketable than a narrative about black people that doesn’t capitalize on tragedy porn or massaging white egos, than a narrative about black people that’s actually written by black people. They’re more familiar on screen than an authentic narrative about gender or disability, and thus, we have been socialized into believing that true diversity and speculative fiction cannot coexist — even though the genre was specifically borne out of challenging established oppressions.
Speculative fiction is inherently anarchic and it always has been. Speculative fiction is such a ready tool for cultural criticism and reimagining. Yet we still populate it with majorly cishet white male narratives, most of them colonialist, most of them heteronormative.
Consider for a moment what this means. How this feels. Rockets outlive us? Dragons are more believable than our survival? To consume narrative after narrative of varying speculations, of utopias and dystopias and distant futures, parallel universes, and to be erased out of every single one of them, or reduced to a token or trope — it says: we don’t see you. You do not matter. You will not matter. It tells us, over and over and over again, that the survival of humanity does not include us. Most hopeful endings of speculative fiction, in which the ragtag group or unlikely hero saves the day and humanity’s persistence is assured, seem to suggest that within this triumphant future, from which a new cycle of humanity will rise, the non-normative will become mere history.
By definition, speculative fiction presents an alternative; it inhabits a counter-culture space that should be rife for what we often define as “diversity.” But even when mainstream media tries, it marginalizes us. Which leads me to my next point, which I hope you’ve predicted by now —
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We need more than representation.
We need more than boxes checked off. Please check out this article by Daniel José Older, one of my favorite writers (and keep an eye out for an interview with him coming up) about how diversity is not enough.
We need far more than representation. We need mainstream artists and audiences to recognize the importance of authority: that not every story is yours to tell, that true allies don’t capitalize on suffering they laud themselves for beginning to understand, but check their privilege, call out the system, and elevate narratives put forth by artists who have the experience and authority to create them.
Of course this doesn’t reduce to “write what you know,” and it doesn’t mean that you can only write within your race or sexuality. It means you need to recognize your privileges, approach narratives for which you lack authority with deference and an open mind, and create stories outside your experience with an eye not for “diversity” but for radical inclusion — a way forward, a consciousness. J. K. Rowling upset myself and many others recently with her appropriation of native and indigenous narratives. Yeah, Jo, as a lifelong fan I would’ve been glad you attempted diversity, since it was nearly nonexistent in the beloved series and all WOC were reduced to love interests (ie: Cho, Angelina, Parvati). But that doesn’t mean you can profit off of bastardizing native narratives and appropriating concepts with cultural resonance just to literally marginalize them in your Wizarding World.
We need normalization. We need inclusivity. It’s fine to have characters and narratives that conform to stereotypes. I myself am a queer GNC mixed race young woman who loves cats, bowties, and big sweaters — but I am also many other things. Of course there are people exactly like Kala and Sulu and any token character, but we are more than our stereotypes, too.
There isn’t one way to be queer, nonwhite, GNC, or disabled. We need narratives that reflect this. We need more than “tolerance,” that terrible word as if we are stubborn pieces of dirt on a spotless floor or an uncomfortably hot day amid a temperate summer.
Art and politics that call for freedom and equality do not “tolerate” but celebrate, recognize the many manifestations of bodies, souls, and their stories, and do not speak over or for each one that doesn’t look like your own, but listen, elevate, and learn.
We need to elevate those who get it right, who reclaim the body in speculative spaces.
I am far from the first person to recognize that speculative fiction is ripe for reclaiming the body from systemic oppression.
Read Octavia Butler, time travel that confronts our racist recent past, restoring authority in a slave narrative. Read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You Charlie Freeman, in which she reclaims Black history and celebrates Black excellence, her prose gently, excellently flushed with magical realism.
Watch Steven Universe, creative and unique storytelling that unapologetically challenges assumptions and explores characters of varying body type, sexuality, gender, race, and ability.
Read Daniel José Older, perhaps one of the clearest contemporary examples of what we need: his poignant, effective fiction that literalizes the violence of gentrification and cultural appropriation while celebrating nonwhite art, ancestry, and queerness.
Read Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, read N. K. Jemisin, Alyssa Wong, Malinda Lo, Colson Whitehead. Watch Nat Geo’s Mars, its fictional elements helmed by Korean musician and actress Jihae. It isn’t without its valid criticisms (inaccurately lumping together Polynesian cultures, for one), but watch Moana just to expose yourself to a Bechdel-passing film populated by non-”savage” brown and Pacific Islander folk, with a girl who actually looks like a girl and never once bothers with romance.
Speculative fiction — sci fi, fantasy, horror, even romance (though I didn’t touch that too much here, as it’s sort of its own set of issues) — is inherently anarchic. It manifests a space to challenge the normative, to imagine freedoms and explore perceptions of class, race, gender, and ability. Right now, it still largely only serves to reinforce the intersectional oppression. Yet I hope and believe, inspired by some of the artists mentioned above and many more, that we are moving towards a place in which authentic characters who aren’t cishet, white, and able-bodied will be able to populate these narratives. It’s time to galvanize. Right now, injustice is encompassing. We must envision and explore a future that fights back, that grants us agency and lets us pursue it. There are going to be many battles ahead, and the fight for authentic speculative fiction may seem like it should take a back seat. Of course, in some ways it should, and should never detract from pursuing legal and political justice. But the fact is, speculative fiction is going to continue being made, and it’s going to continue shaping both our sociocultural climate and self-image. We deserve to experience a vision of the future that sees our triumph. How else will we get there?
It’s time to fight back. It’s time to write and create it ourselves. We’re gonna time travel. We’re gonna ride dragons and dinosaurs. We’re gonna make new worlds that don’t rely on our exploitation and suffering, that don’t marginalize us or have us cheer on the white guy in his quest. We’re gonna fight the monsters. We’re gonna save the world. We’re gonna get the girl, or the guy, or the GNC person that we’re crushing on, or we’re gonna live happily as ace individuals. We’re gonna survive to tell that story ourselves.
We are magic, and we’re gonna survive the apocalypse.
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