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November 01 2012

The 5 ways sci-fi universes treat black characters. Cracked article exploring how black characters are written in Sci-fi. Firefly is number 3 on the list.

Interesting read. The element that really grabs me is what they mentioned during the Star Wars section, but applies to the others as well: Are any of these characters really black? I am referring to Black as another word for "African American", and by that definition most of the character do not fit that definition. I don't remember the race of Zoe or Book ever coming into play on Firefly.
Hmmm... I understand the importance of minority representations and all that, but why does it have to be so heavily focused on? Can't we just have black characters who are simply treated as "Characters" and not "Black Characters"? It's a really frustrating and tricky issue. And Cracked seems to be getting very race/sexuality/gender focused in articles lately. Running low on ideas?

[ edited by Dude Meister on 2012-11-01 19:52 ]
My main takeaway from the prior article on Jews was the degree to which they didn't actually understand Mr. Universe.
I always remember the story Whoopie Goldberg told about the first time she (when she was a child) tuned into 'Star Trek'. She saw Lt. Uhura on the Bridge of the Enterprise and she shouted to her Mother: "there is a Black Lady on TV and she ain't no maid!".
These characters are important to children, who feel like they are a part of the fun when they see characters they can relate to. I think it is important to note if a show fails to have diversity, or fails to do it well. It isn't the most important thing to most of us, but it can be to a lot of kids.
I know that it has always been important to me, especially growing up. Seeing the Huxtables, for example, was a reassurance to me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. The Cosby Show portrayed a well balanced upper middle class family that was similar to my own.
Huh. Reading Jelly's comment made me realize something - I don't think of color when I think of people in this fandom. I realize there are people of every race and nationality out there who are fans, I just never stopped to think "That person might be Chinese" or "That person sounds Italian." Unless someone, like Jelly, makes a point of saying "I'm from this ethnic background," I always just think "fan".

Is that racist of me?

I'm not saying I picture everyone as white (And don't get me started on the ridiculousness of assigning a color to a person - who here is really white of skin? or black? Mocha, tan, cafe au lait, ocher...) but I just don't consider a single color. I guess I more think in terms of...well, rainbow. Ya know? Every color out there, but a person is more than the color of their skin.

I realize that very often characters who do not fit the fictional "norm of the universe" (Norm!) are the scapegoat/token minority/bad guy/first to be killed. But I don't analyze a show and wonder "How come they don't feature a black/gay/Hispanic/Native American/etc character in a better role?" any more than I applaud a show for doing just that.

I'm not sure if I should be ashamed of myself, or proud of myself.
Gossi- what prior article are you referring to? Your comment caught my eye, as I am Jewish. And I think for many non-Jews, the codes represented in Mr. Universe might not have been readily apparent.

More to the point, while black representation in Firefly is fairly impressive, there is an argument to be made that Zoe and Book really don't represent "blackness" as well as they might. They are, as Dude Meister suggests, just characters who happen to be black. But in their era, that carries no signifiers or particular meaning. In ours, it does, of course, similar to Uhura to Whoopie Goldberg. On the other hand, for Dude Meister, substitute your word of choice in this sentence: " Can't we just have ________ characters who are simply treated as "Characters" and not "________ Characters." I.e. Willow and Tara, "gay," for example.

But then, consider Buffy- black representation in Buffy was truly problematic. The longest-standing black character before Wood was Mr. Trick, and he was evil. As were a few other evil baddies. And even Wood had some baggage and at times was not trustworthy. This was a bit reversed with Gunn, but Gunn was also presented as a streetwise black to begin with. And on Dollhouse, well, look what happened.

Interesting issue, this.
It's a kind of Catch-22 issue I think. You can go around in circles with it all day, and all agree despite how different each case may argue the point.

[ edited by Dude Meister on 2012-11-01 21:18 ]
ShadowQuest, I don't think that's racist. In fact, isn't it racist to think of every fan as "that person must be ___" because you're subconsciously playing off a stereotype or you think something of that person that makes them "other" based on race? I can tell the difference between U.S. fans and European fans, but that has nothing to do with race.

Dude Meister, I think there's so much focus on it because there's still a long way to go. Either minorities are under-represented or they are used to show a stereotype. We shouldn't accept either. Talking about it helps bring the issue to light and helps people discuss ways of solving the problem.

Dana5140, you bring up a good point. Context is very important. How do we want to define "black" as a cultural standpoint? I wonder if black people are ever offended by Tyler Perry's TV shows because, as a non-black person, I find them to be based on stereotypes, which I find hurtful and negative. But if we're going to define "black" as a behavior, then maybe the behaviors I associate with stereotyping are not offensive to Tyler Perry's audience.

And isn't defining "black" as a behavior deeply insulting and negative? How many black kids have been mocked for being "too white" just because they weren't "acting black"? As if anyone could actually be any one thing just because of their race? I've been dealt my fair share of "why aren't you more ___?" or "why can't you be like ____?" based in what was traditional to my ethnicity.
funny that this article doesn't mention Jubal Early.
Or The Operative. It's not a very good article.It's purely descriptive. There's some nice critiques of race and Firefly out there but this wasn't one of them.
My takeaway from FF/S about Jubal Early and the Operative were they were important enough (and intelligent and talented enough) to be working for the "wrong" side in an intelligent and talented way. And I found that intriguing, from a "race" standpoint. And empowering.
And even Wood had some baggage and at times was not trustworthy.

True of just about everyone on BTVS, I think.
Similar to the Whoopi Goldberg story... Nichelle Nichols was once considering quitting, but at a party someone said to her, "Ms. Nichols, I'd like you to meet a fan." The fan in question was Dr. Martin Luther King...

Yah, even for Cracked this is a little cursory. We can all admit, however, that the article is 100% accurate in its assessment of what Joss's wet dreams are like.
funny that this article doesn't mention Jubal Early.

prophecygrrl | November 01, 21:59 CET

Or The Operative. It's not a very good article.It's purely descriptive. There's some nice critiques of race and Firefly out there but this wasn't one of them.

Simon | November 01, 22:43 CET

My takeaway from FF/S about Jubal Early and the Operative were they were important enough (and intelligent and talented enough) to be working for the "wrong" side in an intelligent and talented way. And I found that intriguing, from a "race" standpoint. And empowering.

Hera | November 02, 01:58 CET


Whether it harms the argument made by the author in this article or not, I got the impression that there was little direct negativity in relation to black characters discussed within. I mean, within the various breakdowns, the author:

1) Pushes very hard to play down Lando's rather dickish move of selling out Han & co. to the Empire in The Empire Strikes Back by making him seem like a precursor to lovable rogue Capt. Jack Sparrow (ie. Lando's a space pirate, just looking out for his crew/citizens) and emphasizes his Return of the Jedi role; also, Mace Windu gets a nod but is shortchanged to allow the author to make attempts at seeming to be critical through the remarks about Jar Jar Binks. Which yes, do have a strong whiff of early cinema's stereotypes of "black" behaviour and intelligence...but I think the author reached too far, since Jar Jar is a much better example of placing race/ethnicity on a character that doesn't need it since Jar Jar is a Gungan, and not a human being. His species in general seems to be less than eloquent when speaking Basic/English and the Gungans themselves seemed to classify Jar Jar as a well-meaning but foolish oaf;

2) Gives no mention to either Jubal Early or the Operative in the Firefly/Serenity section, when the latter is certainly just as balanced in his character when it comes to bricks and bouquets as Lando. He's (presumably) extremely well-educated, highly civil (even when killing targets personally) when interacting with people, insanely well-trained in numerous fields and holds a senior (if secret) position in the Alliance govt....against the fact he's basically a remorseless killer in the name of a vague "better world" the Alliance govt. is supposed to be edging toward, finds it perfectly logical to kill people only peripherally involved with the BDHs to ensure a victory and is OK with sending a mentally and physically traumatized teenager back to her tormentors to continue an extremely unethical research experiment.

Really, I think the article would have been better served if there was a little more critique on how various sci-fi franchises handled "black" characters via showing the quality of both the the White Hats and the Black Hats' members of African descent (if there were any on either side). To me, the 'Verse deserves more kudos for having an equal balance of "good" and "bad" black characters (though Gina Torres isn't actually black...she's a dark-skinned Latina of Cuban extract who presumably has an ancestor or two of African descent, as she's mentioned in at least one interview I've listened to that some of her siblings are lighter-skinned and look more like a stereotypical Latino/Latina or Caucasian).
ShadowQuest, depending on if your experience of fandom is mostly online (as mine is), that you don't wonder about race probably makes a ton of sense. I too am new to the conversation of ethnic minority portrayals in media and their implications. That said, I know enough to feel a little left wanting by the linked article. (I admit to having experienced an embarassment of scholarly riches soaking in the deeply insightful work presented at the Slayage conference.)

I would suggest, however, that not having to think or worry about race is a privileged position. You and I don't have to think about it because we're not approaching situations regularly wondering if it will be used against us. Being Asian in a major Canadian city (where non-whites are now the majority population), it's been an intesting journey to think about what privilege I do enjoy and how that manifests in my daily life, and to encounter people who don't have those privileges, and to compare notes on what that is like. (It gets really obvious when I leave my city and visit the United States just what I take for granted at home.)

My main point? I don't find your sentiment as you've currently described it as racist, mostly benign. It probably only becomes racist if you were to tell people that they were irrational or overly sensitive for being concerned about it. In which case, this article on privilege distress is one I find very enlightening.

[ edited by counti8 on 2012-11-02 20:50 ]
counti8- thank you for the link that article- it was interesting and very to the point.
Counti8, do you mean that because you're Asian in a city where Asians are the majority that you are among somewhat similar ethnic groups and don't have to worry about what people think of your race? And it's your experience that the US is less like this? I have seen similar opinions from other Canadians and it puzzles me what Canadians seem to think about US cities. I can assure you that we aren't constantly having to explain, defend, or wonder whether our ethnicity or race is used against us. Certainly some people might - but as an Asian person living in the US and in a very diverse area, I can offer an alternative view. Having been to Vancouver and Toronto, I find that it isn't that much different from being where I am in the US. I also haven't talked to anyone with the same opinion you have as to why they feel the US is so different. My experience says otherwise.
I look forward to the day when articles like this are actually written by a black person.
Egghead I look forward to the day when articles like this aren't even necessary.
Baby steps, ShadowQuest.

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