From superheroes to elves to dragons, there is ample imagination that goes into the creation of science fiction and fantasy stories. Yet when it comes to envisioning people of colour at the forefront of these stories, it seems that sense of imagination is lacking.
For the first time in its over-50-year history, the upcoming season of popular sci-fi series Doctor Who will feature a female Doctor, the lead character in the show. Nerd women everywhere celebrated the news as an important leap in representation within the sci-fi and fantasy genre — a genre that often excludes women from leading roles. In 2016, for instance, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only 29 per cent of the top 100 grossing science fiction films in Hollywood featured female protagonists.
It is therefore encouraging that franchises like Doctor Who — as well as films like Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, Wonder Woman, and Ghostbusters — have carved out more space for women to take on starring roles. What’s not so encouraging is the overwhelming proportion of white women featured in the mainstream film and television industry.
Representation of people of colour remains a significant issue for mainstream cinema. As of 2016, 76 per cent of female characters in the top 100 films were white, compared to 14 per cent Black, six per cent Asian, and three per cent Latina.
Representation of marginalized people in the media is important: it can reduce racial bias, and it increases confidence and self-esteem among racial minority audiences. Portraying women of colour in film and television helps to normalize their experiences — and when women and people of colour don’t see themselves on screen, it sends the unfortunate message that their experiences are invalid or not as important as those of white actors, both male and female.
The sidelining of women of colour in favour of white women is nothing new. Historically, feminism has excluded women of colour and prioritized the needs of cisgender, heterosexual white women above everyone else. White feminism — the insidious brand of feminism that favours the needs of white women over those of women of colour and thereby upholds white supremacy — contributes to the push for more inclusion in mainstream media.
To the extent that celebrations of gender diversity in Hollywood predominantly focus on white women, gains made in this area remain mostly superficial. Though Wonder Woman is widely publicized as a groundbreaking feminist movie, it still lacks substantial casting of women of colour. Conceptualizing feminism in such a unidimensional way is reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s Girls, which has received similar praise despite not including women of colour in lead roles.
The infamous controversy about the movie Ghost in the Shell also exemplifies how white feminism can be weaponized against women of colour. Given that the film is based on an original Japanese franchise, it would have made sense to cast a Japanese actress in the starring role. Instead, white actress Scarlett Johansson was hired to play the protagonist, which offended many in light of the general scarcity of Asian actors featured in Hollywood movies.
Fortunately, a number of upcoming sci-fi and fantasy releases seem to be more sensitive to the scarcity of roles for women of colour in Hollywood. In the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther, 90 per cent of the cast is Black, and Black women have been cast in leading roles, making it one of the most diverse movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Women of colour have also been cast in other upcoming movies: Zazie Beetz will play Domino in the Deadpool sequel, and the upcoming movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time will feature Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey.
Although increased diversity appears to be on its way to the big screen, more work still needs to be done to ensure women of colour are granted the visibility they deserve. As strides are being made to include women in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, additional attention should be paid to inclusivity for racialized women; having truly diverse casts means being sensitive to racism as well as sexism.
Oreoluwa Adara is an incoming second-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Equity Studies.