January 11, 2006

More on Whitewashed Scifi/Fantasy

Filed under:Gender, Literature, Race, Science Fiction — Lake Desire @ 6:05 pm

My internet has been down more than up recently, so I’m relying on the university’s computer labs and wireless to get online. (Don’t fret, I’m changing providers. Thank goodness we have not one but three high speed internet options in my city.) Since my internet outage interrupted the World of Warcraft post I was brewing up, in consolation (this is better, really–I wish I’d seen it before I wrote my Race and the Future post) I bring your attention to Pam Noles’s essay Shame on bonding with her dad over scifi movies:

I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn’t have black people back then. He said there’s always been black people. I said but black people can’t be wizards and space people and they can’t fight evil, so they can’t be in the story. When he didn’t say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn’t say anything else.

When Noles was a little girl, not finding characters like herself made her think people like herself were incapable of being the heroes. It’s disheartening to see something I love so much–scifi and fantasy–contribute to internalized oppression, and it isn’t just race.

I don’t know firsthand what it is like to be marginalized by the things I enjoy because on my race, but I do because of my gender–and feminism has shown me how the two are very interwoven (and not to try and measure which oppressions are “worse” than others). When I was a little girl, so many of the books and television programs and video games I enjoyed featured one token female, if any, that was a one-dimensional stereotype. She was into her looks or flirting, and I couldn’t identify. When playing make-believe with friends, I lived through the male characters. They were complex characters in their own right, defined by more than their gender, and I could identify with their strengths. They felt like real people, not paperdolls.

Noles’s discovery of A Wizard of Earthsea is really touching:

And because Le Guin snuck up on it, let us thrill with Sparrowhawk as he made his way, the Revelation came as a shock. I do remember bursting out into tears on the living room couch when I understood what was going on. And the tears flowed again when Mom came home from work and I showed her the book while trying to explain. Sparrowhawk is brown. I think he’s like an Indian from India. And Vetch is black like from Africa. There’s a bunch more and they have real power. Not the girls, though. But still they are also the good guys. It’s the white people who are evil. And Sparrowhawk is also Ged, and he’s going to be the most powerful one of them all, ever.

Her experience is reminescent of the times I found a character I really identified with, a strong person like me in the fictional worlds I loved.

And my last favorite bit:

Le Guin’s racial choices in “A Wizard of Earthsea” mattered because her decision said to the wide white world: You Are Not The Whole Of The Universe. For many fans of genre, no matter where they fell on the spectrum of pale, this was the first time such a truth was made alive for them within the pages of the magical worlds they loved.

Yes! I love Le Guin for it, and strive to remind myself that as I catch myself enacting on my privilege to be oblivious to race.

I suggest reading the essay. I really can’t do it justice, especially to Noles reaction to Star Wars as a girl and her critique of news media for ignoring the whitewashing of the Earthsea miniseries.

Via Whileaway, which also alerted me to Invisible Universe: a history of blackness in speculative fiction that I can’t wait to see.



  1. Good post.

    Comment by Rupert (25 comments) — January 12, 2006 @ 1:32 am

  2. Ugh, is it sad that all I can think of when I hear about Earthsea is how badly SciFi channel ruined it??? They made all the main characters white, for crying out loud! They said that “Ged” was Sparrowhawk’s usename and “Sparrowhawk” was his true name! And don’t even get me started on what they did with Tenar. Ugh.

    Comment by tekanji (62 comments) — January 12, 2006 @ 8:28 pm

  3. There is redemption.

    Comment by Lake Desire (208 comments) — January 12, 2006 @ 11:03 pm

  4. OMG i am SO seeing that

    Comment by tekanji (62 comments) — January 13, 2006 @ 8:02 pm

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