Race and Gender in Scifi Movies Essay
Ever since the invention of the silver screen, people have projected society’s views into movies. Every year, millions of people sit in at theaters, and are subject to the themes and messages put in front of them. From the submissive Dorothy from Wizard of Oz to the ever-present white protagonist, fiction and reality have always mirrored each other, and movies have either served as a progressive power or an echo of that culture’s beliefs (Anderson 2010). Race and gender differences have promoted hatred, discrimination, and inequality since the conception of the United States.
In America’s relatively modern history, the society has taken public steps away from the sexist and racist ways. Nevertheless, racism and sexism have been ever-present in a more implicit fashion (Ketchum 1976). With movies being a private industry, however, it is possible for discriminatory and/or sexist implications to be present. With the increasing movie revenues, it is important to recognize and identify the messages being subtly implied by the media. With repeated exposure to these themes, it becomes all the more likely that racial and sexist norms can be socialized in society (O’Neil 2011).
For the purposes of research, race can be defined using the traditional fabrications, being white, black, Asian, and Latino. For the purposes of this research, racial stereotypes are not being analyzed; rather the presence, or lack of, a variety of races and their status in the movies. To find racial preference, white characters being the main protagonist, love interests, or mentors will also be distinguished as bias towards white people. Another issue that could potentially plague the cinema is gender discrimination. Unlike race, gender perceptions are much less subtle, and easier to distinguish.
For example, if a woman is dependent on a male character, emotionally unstable, feeble, sexualized, and/or submissive are clear signs of sexism. On the flip side, male characters who are strong, independent, protagonists, and emotionally stable are overt examples of a presumption of masculine dominance. Seeing as how the issue of race and gender has appeared to progress in recent years, it was important to select a sample of movies that not only were only high grossing in the box office, but also movies that represented various times in the United States.
By doing this, there was an increased understanding of the evolution and progression of the racial or a gender stereotype throughout recent history. One genre in particular, however, was able to reach the most fans across time than any other. Science-fiction, or sci-fi, movies are often littered with different species, but it is still possible that the same racial and gender stereotypes of humans can be expressed in the movies. In order to accurately represent the time periods, the movies The Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, Star Wars Episode VI- Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, and Star Trek, released in 2009, were scrutinized.
Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, and Star Trek most accurately represented the sci-fi fandom of their times, and motivated millions of people to be subjected to their messages. In order to determine the underlying implications of the movie, the aforementioned races of white, black, Latino, and Asian were noted in a table labeled “Racial Undertones of Sci-Fi Movies” in a column under the movie title. Similarly, the traditional definitions, as abovementioned, were meticulously noted in a table labeled “Gender Stereotypes in Sci-Fi Movies” in the movie’s respective column.
When looking for racist and sexist themes in a movie, especially in the more modern ones, it was more important to look for subtle and implied forms of it. For example, if a group was particularity dominant, it was important look at the character’s race. The player’s race can subtly imply that this race is stronger, smarter, or something of that nature. For gender, the examples were much more overt, such as a woman clinging to a man before an action, or a woman being hyper-sexualized for a scene.
Given the very expansive nature of sci-fi movies, the study was only limited by the revenues the particular film brought in. Throughout the movie, Planet of the Apes seemed to be dominated by masculinity. eEamples were quite obvious from the beginning. First, the ship only contained one woman, Stewart. Stewart was portrayed as tall, blond, and skinny; essentially depicting the “idealistic” woman. Continuing with the socialized ideas of woman, it was predictable that Stewart was to be the first character to die, and the three male leads survived.
This premature death of Stewart manifested the notion of how women are feeble and need to be protected by the stronger male characters. In fact, Stewart as the “new Eve”, suggesting her only purpose was for mating with the men. This same trend was supported by the ape tribes; the male were chiefs, hunters, and politicians, while women were seemingly nonexistent. There was, however, one female ape, Zira, who showed her inability to keep her emotions at check by sympathizing with the captain, even calling him “Bright Eyes”.
Race was not as explicit as male dominance, but Planet of the Apes was quite obvious the favoring towards the white race. Initially, there was only one black man in a group of four people, and he was almost immediately killed. After his passing, there was zero diversity in the film, other than the apes. In fact, there were dozens of white men and women to act out the part of a small earth tribe, but every actor was white. Moreover, Planet of the Apes was trying to simulate the effects of post-human controlled earth, and the presence of an only white population subtly suggested that they were the dominate race.
The apes, however, had no discernible human-type races, and therefore it is impossible to determine racial preference and stereotypes. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, there were many conflicting messages portrayed about women. In the beginning, Leia was depicted as a strong, independent, almost masculine character as she rescued Han Solo from his carbonite prison; even holding him as he gained his senses. Later in the film, the coordinator of the Rebellion Alliance was a stern and emotionless woman commanding the entire fleet.
However, when the majority of the Rebel fighters and Imperial forces were scrutinized, it was clear that every officer and solider was a man. In fact, other than Leia and the Rebel coordinator, no other women appear as combatants in the movie. Also, it did not take long before Leia became hyper sexualized; appearing in a metallic bikini. Within that scene, Leia was playing the part of a submissive slave, but she also completely reversed her role by killing her captor with the very chains that bound her. Race also had some bias in Star Wars as well.
In the Galactic Empire, there was no diversity in the ranks. In reality, every officer was a white male. The Rebel Alliance had more races present, but not by much. Lando was the only minority with a speaking part, and the Asian and black characters were killed with minimal screen time and no lines. Another, more subtle, form of racial favoring was the voice of Darth Vader. In the movie, Darth Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones, a black man. When they finally reveal Darth Vader’s face, however, we find him to be a very pale old man with a soft voice.
Examples of sexism in Star Trek exist; but were significantly less overt. There were many women in the movie; almost in equal proportion to that of men. Female characters, like Uhura, are strong and authoritative, and many even commanders in the fleet. However, all women in Star Fleet were dressed in skirts, which would be incredibly impractical on a starship. Also, there were very subtle examples of woman being feeble, needing strong men. When Kirk’s mother needed to be rescued, his father had to sacrifice himself so she could escape with her child.
Subsequently, Uhura was in a bar commanding a conversation with Kirk, but immediately after, a male character found it necessary to “fight for her honor”; essentially demonstrating Uhura was incapable of fighting for herself. Race in Star Trek was surprisingly inclusive. Within the first few minutes of story, almost every conceivable human, and many alien, race had been displayed and given dialogue; all while being organic and flowing. Commanders were anything from Middle Eastern to Asian. Even the antagonists were a diverse bunch, and never appeared as one race of people. However, both main protagonists were, of course, white males.
Other than the protagonists, there seemed to be a balance of representation Though examples can be found in obvious examples can be found, race and gender have advanced noticeably in forty years on the silver screen. Racial and gender inclusion and equality has advanced from a point of overt to covert, and only existing in small details. The fact that women and minorities were severely underrepresented in the cinema, based on the results, seems to have been noticed by society, and through comparing Planet of the Apes and Star Trek, it is clear that the disparity has been well on its way to being rectified.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi served as a good point of reference to see this progression of minorities and women in the movies; with Leia being a strong, main, and assertive role. Remaining details, however, are still socially acceptable, such as women wearing skirts and being sexualized. Given the dominant culture of SciFi fans, being predominantly men, strong and attractive women do not seem to be a characteristic that is likely to change. Logically, a woman having the ability to survive in space is attractive to anybody who is interested or entertained by space travel.
Due to this finding, it is safe to conclude that any future research done on this topic would yield similar results. However, it is likely that a woman being the central protagonist is likely to occur in the future, given the current trend. Findings of this study could be enhanced and more defined by either rewatching the movies, or the inclusion of more films; representing more sections of cinematic history. Also, the trend found in Sci-Fi movies could very likely be translated to various other genres. Racial inclusion and woman have come a long way in past decades, and is likely to follow the current trend.
Anderson, Katie. 2010. “Film as a Reflection of Society”. Studies by Undergraduate Researchers at Guelph. Retrieved November 3rd, 2012 (http://journal. lib. uoguelph. ca/index. php/surg/article/viewArticle/1105/1806) Ketchum, Sara. 1976. “Implicit Racism. ” Analysis 36: 91 O’Neil, Dennis. 2011. “Socialization. ” How We Acquire Our Cultures And World View. Retrieved November 10th, 2012. (http://anthro. palomar. edu/social/soc_1. htm)