Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Legion Of Multiracial Babies Will Be Intersectional As Fuck (Memo 1)

So as I said in the last post, this blog is going to be split up into Acts. I did this mostly because things came up that required me to take a long break in between the Batman RIP entry and the next one. So that there's still content in between the weeks, I'm going to post a series of Memos I wrote for a Science Fiction and Feminism course I took last spring. The first two look at various short pieces from Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements (which can be purchased here). While the third looks at something a lot of you should be familiar with... one of the blog's ghosts, if you will. Fearful Symmetry will return in 2018. You can support me on Patreon here. Thank you for indulging me this far, and I hope you see this through with me.

22XX: One-Shot by Jelani Wilson is a short story about Sasha Sangare’s attempt at escaping from The Institute after the military decides his nanotechnological experiments would be extremely effective in a military context while thinking of the genius next door he never said “I love you” to. The excerpt from Levar Burton’s Aftermath deals with Dr. Rene Reynolds, a scientist working on a neural net project that could save countless lives, being kidnapped by a group of people known as “Skinners” who seemingly wish to take her dark skin and use it to prevent a bunch of rich people from getting skin cancer. Finally, “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal is an essay about the political context and subsequent implications of the original Star Wars films. Suffice it to say, none of these works paints a bright picture about the future and our place within it, though Abu-Jamal’s essay is more about our present than what is to come.

It would be extremely easy to take this memo in a pessimistic direction, highlighting how the marginalized will always be marginalized because society is structured to marginalize said groups. How, given these works, the answer to Sarah Hannah Gómez’s question “Where are the people of color in dystopias” is “We killed them all, and those who are left are being used as cattle to make us live longer because America is already a dystopic nightmare and most people don’t notice because the “important” people are all white so no one cares.” Indeed, there is some truth to that answer, as evidenced by the rise of Nazis to positions of power in both law enforcement (see Ferguson, MI) and politics (see President Bannon), but that isn’t what Gómez is asking about.

Her article explicitly rejects the common use of people of color to experience, for lack of a better term, “Black Suffering,” wherein the reader experiences “…a nearly white world with the usual Noble Savage and Magical Negro to guide and humanize the protagonist and ultimately sacrifice themselves for [the white protagonist]” (Gómez). Equally, Gómez rejects the other typical approach of science fiction to just simply cast the characters colorblind while still writing them as if they were white. So then, the question remains: what archetypes and stories can people of color live within the context of a science fiction dystopia.

Going in the order they’re presented in the book, 22XX: One Shot focuses on two characters: Sasha Sangare and his friend Herb. The narrative in which the characters reside is a pretty basic genre mash-up of “The dumb-dumb militaristic government wants to use our brains for smarts and will kill us for it” and “Nice guy can’t bring up the courage to say he loves the girl next door as she dates a mutual friend”. These narratives are reflected in how the characters are portrayed: Sasha is essentially a mad scientist, willing to test brand new experiments on himself, regardless of the danger. However, his positionality within the narrative, as demonstrated by his narration (written in the style of classical fan fiction in works such as Paula Smith’s underrated and misunderstood satire “A Trekkie’s Tale”, Tara Gilesbie’s infamous “My Immortal”, and Haruka Takachiho’s highly influential The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair that typically reveals more about the narrator/focal character than she would want it to) repeatedly, is that of the “romantic comedy lead”. Herb, meanwhile, is relegated to the role of “Generic Doctor Who Companion” (wherein the character exists to say “What’s that?” or “But that’s impossible!” before the clever person explains the plot to them) and never deviates from said role. Both of these roles and narratives are ones typically reserved for white people (in fact, if you exclude expanded universe material, only two people of color have played companions on Doctor Who), but at the same time, there are some problematic elements to them.

More directly seen is that the main focus of the narrative is that of a nice guy complaining about how “his” girl is going out with someone else, and he never shuts up about it, even in the life or death situation Sasha finds himself in. The short story, in turn, frames this mindset in a “boy shucks, ain’t I hopeless” mentality. This ignores the level of privilege such narrative situations typically have, as it assumes the male lead deserves to be with “his” girl without allowing the girl, Delia, to have a say in the matter (not that she gets any lines or even appears in the story to begin with). And given the genre mixing the short story is playing with, this can also lead to the narrative to be framed in terms of “Jock vs. Geek”, which has been a very problematic trope within the sci-fi community to the point where literal Nazis have co-opted segments of nerd culture by preying upon the implied assumption said mentality has of “I don’t play sports-ball, therefore I’m as oppressed as any other marginalized group” (Lovell). Fortunately, the short story doesn’t seem to be engaged with that narrative, and heartily subverts it by focusing more on the antagonistic corporal’s mechanical features over his physical prowess and, ironically, focusing on how compromised our lead is with the whole “mooning over the genius next door while in danger” aspect.

In the excerpt from Aftermath, we primarily follow the plight of Dr. Rene Reynolds. Now typically the narrative of a black woman literally being coveted by white people for her flesh would be problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being an example of the “damsel in distress” trope, but the excerpt subverts this in a number of ways. For starters, for the majority of the excerpt, we are given the narrative primarily from the perspective of Dr. Reynolds and focused more on her intellectual interests than her kidnapping and torture. In addition to this, by the end of the excerpt, Reynolds turns out to be alive and well and is saved not by a white man, but by fellow person of color, Leon. "I know it's not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued,” actress Kerry Washington said of her role as Broomhilda in the movie Django Unchained, “but for a woman of color in this country, we've never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery], I really saw the value of having a story that empowers the African American man to do something chivalrous for the African American woman, because that hasn't been an idea that has held women back in the culture — it's something we've never been allowed to dream about." (Sperling)

As for “Star Wars and the American Imagination”, we start to have some complications with this approach to the three texts. Most obviously, this is not a narrative set within a dystopian society; it’s not even a piece of fiction, but an essay exploring the political implications of the Star Wars franchise. However, the unspoken aspect of the essay is the implications of the Empire (who, need I remind you, are Imperialistic Space Nazis) presented within the Star Wars films as being a metaphor of what America is: the Empire is a dystopia. This would then make Mumia, whose first person account of his experiences and positionality with Star Wars open the essay, the protagonist of a dystopian story calling itself America. As such, it is telling that he focuses upon the past of America, claiming, “Americans, like any people, are subject to delusions” (256) in relation to the long and awful history of slavery and our willingness to ignore the evils that historical figures like Jefferson did while proclaiming themselves to be “rebels”.

This theme of rebelling is prevalent within the POC narratives presented within this selection of chapters. Each story presents different methods of the characters rebelling against their dystopic landscape, whether it’s by critiquing the claims of History, freeing the tortured marginalized slaves from the “progress” of “scientific research”, or simply escaping into a different genre entirely. This is also a typical narrative within dystopic fiction of the goodies rebelling (whether they are successful is up to the author), but then, the white protagonists of those stories seemed to be fine with the torture, subjugation, and humiliation of the marginalized before they themselves were targeted.

Discussion Questions:
 -What are some other stories featuring people of color that don’t rely on their relationship to a white -protagonist?
-Are there alternative forms of rebellion that a character could enact beyond escape, critique, or save and how can they be implemented into future stories?
-What are the roles of non-antagonistic white people within POC Sci-Fi stories?

Additional Works Cited
Sperling, Nicole. "'Django Unchained' Was More than a Role for Kerry Washington." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.

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