Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
In sci-fi entertainment, a strange but commonly accepted pattern regarding extraterrestrials is that many of them happen to look almost, if not exactly, like the human beings we see around us every day. This is why the Kryptonian Kal-El is so easily able to blend in as regular-guy Clark Kent. His physiology, against all probability, happens to be genetically fashioned in a way that mirrors our own.
Of course, over-thinking Superman’s scientific origins would derail the charm of his character; he is relatable because he looks human. While the convenience of his appearance is preposterous, we roll with it just as we would with any other popcorn movie paradigm, like eye-masks that fully protect superhero secret identities, or explosions that make noise in outer space. When aliens look like humans, it’s again up to the audience to get with it or get over it.
This concept is commonly packaged with an assumption that these aliens wouldn’t just look like humans, but specifically, white humans. Superman happens to have fair skin and blue eyes—and in the television and film versions of his story, nearly all Kryptonians are also white. This would lead us to believe that Kryptonians, by and large, were a “white” race of aliens. In developing Kryptonian characters, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Superman writers were likely creating with a white-centric mindset. They are unfortunately not the only creators to keep it Caucasian when it comes to creating humanoid aliens in on screen.
To name some examples:
The repetition of this casting tendency has conditioned American filmgoers and television watchers to accept an unspoken rule of thumb in sci-fi: If aliens were to look like us, they would probably look like the white version of us. A Caucasian human emerging from an alien spaceship is passable, but would viewers find an Arab, Asian or Latino (and so on) alien to be ridiculous? Because we accept this long-time practice at face value, Hollywood entertainers are hardly challenged to rethink this awkward and embarrassing pattern.
While the tendency to depict humanoid aliens almost exclusively with white skin has its problems, a subset phenomenon further emphasizes the same bias: aliens who look nothing like humans in their natural form but once attaining a ‘humanoid’ body (to blend in on Earth) still end up selecting human bodies that are white.
While the television series V suffers from the same problem as the previous examples, its premise comes painfully close to justifying its adherence to the white alien pattern. V chronicles the arrival of extraterrestrial “Visitors,” a species of evil reptiles that cloak themselves in human skin in order to win the trust of humans. A majority of the Visitors depicted on the show have chosen white disguises.
Once arrived, the Visitors fool humans by speeding up Earth’s scientific advancement, healing the sick, engaging “openly” with the media, and employing other manipulations that positively affect their publicity. In the pilot episode, the show addresses a more basic, subtle touch of the Visitors that boosts their likability a great deal: how attractive they are in human form. A central character observes that every one of the Visitors is good-looking by human standards. This point-out cues the audience to recognize a strategy so clever that it works on a subconscious level; it takes advantage of the human tendency to favor “beautiful” people.
While the show used this insight into the Visitors’ plan to double as an insight into a human flaw, it could have taken a bolder step to more completely deconstruct both. Imagine if the series had overtly tackled the mostly white appearance of the Visitors by addressing the historical pedestal that people who are white are put on socially, physically, monetarily, and intellectually. With a grim acknowledgement that the Visitors were using an understanding of white privilege as a strategy to manipulate humans, the series could have turned the white alien cliché on its head–cornering the audience into confronting our own kind’s racial biases. V instead remained silent, missing an opportunity to address a trite science fiction trope.
Better adept at justifying its use of aliens disguised as white males is the cult film They Live (1988). Its conceit that aliens are plotting with and disguised as the wealthiest and most powerful human beings on Earth makes the aliens’ human disguises justifiable and believable.
But how many filmmakers can claim that their stories truly and utterly demand only white actors as extraterrestrials in order to convey their points? More often than not, white actors play these roles out of Hollywood habit rather than storytelling necessity.
There are a couple of instances that reflect the race-deliberate feel of They Live while using black actors to do it. The Brother From Another Planet (1984) and the children’s TV series The Journey of Allen Strange (1997) feature aliens with black appearances, and the race of each character is overtly addressed in each. Both deserve high praise for challenging the racial landscape of a genre that depends too often on a white default, even if they remain on the fringe of mainstream pop consciousness.
Some other exceptions to the “white human alien” pattern:
Examples like these are a step in the right direction, but still harder to come by than they should be, and even then don’t always shine as exceptions to entirely celebrate. Take Meet Dave (2008), which featured Eddie Murphy as an extraterrestrial, but was popularly loathed before it reached the box office, and highly disappointing once it did—a sorely missed opportunity to put a high-profile dent in a near-impenetrable trend.
On the other hand, consider the popular dark-skinned Klingons from the Star Trek universe. In the original series, they were played by white actors with bronzed skin, depicted as a people widely lacking in decency or sophistication, and most likely modeled off Asian stereotypes. But in later years, Klingons were retooled. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) introduced audiences to the proud and honorable Worf, played by African-American actor Michael Dorn. But was this casting a progressive triumph, given the primary reason for casting a dark-skinned actor in this role was to help to simplify the make-up process?
These exceptions, like nearly all of the ones that break the whites-as-aliens rule in American film and television, take the more “diverse” approach by using black actors alone. In truth, occasionally involving black people doesn’t truly count as “diversity”; it only serves a dichotomy. A one-or-the-other casting policy ignores the fact that when aliens keep looking like white people, black people aren’t the only folks being snubbed. One of the very few major US franchises to further stretch the racial limits of casting aliens is that of the Men in Black movies, which featured actors Rosario Dawson (Puerto Rican/Afro-Cuban American) and Tony Shalhoub (Lebanese American) as extraterrestrials.
The overall fact remains that a balanced representation is hard to spot in “human alien” films, because when aliens are written to look like us, it’s the kind of “us” that racially dominates Hollywood and controls its creative processes. Despite the use of sci-fi premises that supposedly spur the imagination to the furthest reaches of space, the narrow focus of “white by default” is still pervasive enough to ground out-of-this-world concepts with business-as-usual biases. While white majority casting is not a standard limited to sci-fi films, its hubris is certainly most glaring in a genre known for creators who think outside the box. If sci-fi storytellers—paid to generate ideas both innovative and imaginative—can only conjure up universes that serve as macrocosms for narrow racial experiences and preferences, then science fiction is broken beyond repair.
While the idea of “aliens resembling humans on Earth” can be thought-provoking and even beneficial to a story, aliens consistently resembling only white humanity deserves a double take.