Sci-fi, womanhood and blackness

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Aug 22, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

Sci-fi television and films have a pillaging relationship with womanhood that is as revealing of a historical and contemporary reality as it is lacking of simple self-awareness. One which would see that totalitarian regimes like The Handmaid's Tale's Gilead were built in the image of America, Australia, Canada, Brazil, South Africa and their treatment of black and brown women. The wars that frame the backdrop for riveting sci-fi drama are battles that have been waged on the bodies of non-white women and if you can look past the cautionary glare of “this is what we could become,” you will see that this is what we have always been.

So much of the repression in Gilead is an exact representation of the dehumanization subjected on black women during the Transatlantic slave trade, but in Gilead, there are fewer black faces and more white victims. Black women were not allowed to read, own property or start families. They were seen as only useful for constant breeding to ensure that the slave industry remained lucrative and were consistently subjected to sexual violence, mental torture and death.

In 1855, Celia, a 19-year-old slave, killed her master (even writing the word "master" alongside "slave" feels like a particularly dark sci-fi adaptation) Robert Newsom after he had routinely raped her since she was 14, resulting in her giving birth to two of his children. As a slave, Celia had absolutely no legal rights and she was executed by the state of Missouri. Anti-black racism is not an ideological war because that would require for it to be an issue pegged to morality and human benevolence. But as a systemic and structural reality, it created a world where white supremacy and gender-based violence are manifested on black womanhood. The life of Celia would be a fitting addition to a Handmaid’s Tale storyline illustrating the lengths powerful white men will go to attain and maintain power while simultaneously putting on display the non-autonomous position of most female roles in sci-fi. But it will also show the complicated intersections of anti-blackness and the erasure of the particular kind of violence black women know well and which white creators can only understand as a fictitious retelling of a looming dystopia. Anti-black racism is not simply an “ideological war,” because racism is a historical construct, not an intellectual one. Over the centuries and millennia racism has spawned systems that inform how civil society works and how resources are distributed. It informs every facet of our social existence and it is in this vein that black womanhood is manipulated, distorted and erased on screen.

Ava Ex Machina

Credit: A24

Ex-Machina was a film that left you with many questions once the credits rolled. Epistemological sh*t like, "Can something manufactured with complex amounts of data, actuators, accelerometers and maybe polyurethane cease to become an it and be truly human?" and even "What is human?" The many prototypes tested in the film had one thing in common: they were all created to resemble women. White women. In the film, the peaks or limits of artificial intelligence were tested on humanoid robots and once they failed or succeeded too effectively they were “upgraded” — killed off to make room for more data and more experimentation. Ava was the name of the humanoid who was able to escape.

The film was praised for its sleek production, vivid storytelling and introspective look at people’s desire to dominate, to own, to replicate, to control. This Pandora’s Box of human desires played out on the body of a white woman who ultimately found her freedom by leaving for dead the men who had created and prodded her. The politics of race, when placed within the realm of science fiction, see black women as the ones who have been historically prodded and seen as vessels for experimentation. J. Marion Sims spent the majority of his medical career operating on pregnant black women without consent or anesthesia, and this dehumanization is constantly side-stepped as he is applauded for his surgical skills. Erasing this history, or only alluding to it with a white leading lady, is not only irresponsible, it is white supremacy in action. The people chosen to highlight the inequality need to resemble those most affected. If that is not the case, what we have is threadbare attempts at critical conversations.

In the 2011 series Person of Interest, an AI was created and during the course of the series progressed from an it to a her, taking on the voice of one of her human protectors. She was more powerful than her creator, but she remained his creation doing what pleased him and creating a television relationship with one of the most nuanced and sympathetic AI-human relationships on screen. The show continued with the narrative of female representations subjected to the needs of men and their ethics. Sci-fi is able to suspend disbelief in ways that most genres cannot and yet it remains tied to the notion that womanhood cannot be autonomous. And so in these imaginary worlds, women have no rights, blackness is non-existent and such dire stories are meant to serve as a thrilling if not somber escape.

Octavia Butler’s work remains one of the most intuitive and innovative reflections on the role of women and the experiences of blackness while using sci-fi. In the characters and plotlines of Lilith’s Brood, she captured the voyeuristic, detached gaze of whiteness which is able to impose incessant trauma on black lives, that is then further magnified when co-opted by white bodies to portray a violence deemed unimaginable. “Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status,” she wrote.

Octavia Butler

From shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld and films like Ex Machina, the identity of the powers that be is directly linked to the oppression they impose and the people they oppress. Butler’s use of sci-fi to narrate the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor opened a conversation that included the "Why?" of anti-blackness while also commenting on the space of dark-skinned black women as both victims and people whose freedom is inextricably linked to world salvation. She did the same thing in her last novel Fledgling with the main character, Shori, and it is a question she raised throughout her entire career in sci-fi literature: what it means to be a woman and to be black.

Picture the scene: we open on a cold, gray and cloudy morning with over a million women marching down a busy street, signs held high, their steps determined as those with megaphones lead chants, mottos, and dances. Thousands of faces painted with the biological gender symbol for female, while some faces are half covered with bandanas to only reveal unwavering persistence in their eyes, and others still wear the instantly recognizable bonnet of the handmaids.

This was not the climax of a nail-biting film. It happened in the heart of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where women took to the streets to support the legalization of abortion, a bill that was narrowly tanked in the Argentinian senate early this month. According to New York Magazine, in 2011 until 2012, 26 states passed over 111 provisions restricting abortion in the US. Far outside of Gilead, places exist where women have no say on what to do with their bodies.

And the faces of white women are the ones we see leading the charge to reclaim autonomy.

In sci-fi, the wars of men always find themselves being waged on women and race as a defining circumstance is bypassed. Looking at what the genre has chosen to represent, it is clear that sci-fi is for white men to re-enact situations of unparalleled domination and endurance is for white women who weather all storms.

Womanhood and blackness can find no room to coexist in mainstream sci-fi because where one is malleable to the whims of men the other is just too goddamn close to home. Gilead was real life, so does that then mean that sci-fi is not just fictitious but is the experiences of black lives on white faces to whitewash black pain and illustrate potential world destruction — without black people?

There’s that epistemological sh*t again.

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