Racebending.com

Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality

Categories

Aliens Looking White: Extraterrestrial Skin Color in Sci-Fi

May 30, 2011

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.

 

Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978).

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:

 

Michael Rennie as Klaatu from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).

 

Ray Walston as Uncle Martin from the TV series My Favorite Martian (1963). Christopher Lloyd starred as Uncle Martin in a remake in 1999.

 

Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards as white alien siblings in Escape to Witch Mountain (1975). The characters were also cast with white actors in the 2009 remake, Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

 

Robin Williams as the alien Mork from the TV series Mork and Mindy (1978).

 

From left to right, Michelle Burke, Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin as a white alien family in Coneheads (1993).

 

The titular alien in Doctor Who (1963-present), currently played by Matt Smith—one of the eleven white guys who have portrayed the Time Lord.

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.

 

The all white alien cast of 3rd Rock From the Sun (1996).

 

From left to right, Katherine Heigl, Brendan Fehr and Jason Behr in Roswell (1999).

 

Kevin Spacey as Prot in K-Pax (2001).

Keanu Reeves as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), a remake of the 1951 film. This time, the character explains that he appears as a human because because his true form would frighten humans. Presumably, then, Klaatu had a choice of which human race he wanted to resemble most.

 

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.

Linda Vandervoort as Lisa in V, a 2010 remake of a 1980s series also heavy on the use of white aliens.

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.

 

An alien shorn of its human disguise in They Live.

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.

 

Joe Morton as The Brother From Another Planet.

 

Arjay Smith as Allen in The Journey of Allen Strange.

Some other exceptions to the “white human alien” pattern:

 

Mos Def playing Betelgeusian alien Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2006). Prior to the 2006 movie, Prefect was portrayed by white actors.

 

Leonard Roberts above and Adrian Holmes below as the only examples of non-white Kryptonians of the several that have appeared on the Superman TV series Smallville (2001). (On a related note, Smallville casted similarly for the role of J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter (played by actor Phil Morris.) Shapeshifter J'onn J'onzz can choose any human appearance, but chooses to assume the form of a black man.)

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.

Categories: blog

About the Author

Eric Anthony Glover writes about the intersection of entertainment and social justice, tackling how disempowered groups are represented in media through his blog, The E-Box. When he’s too lazy to address equality in pop culture with posts, he settles for doing it on Twitter as @The_E_Box. Otherwise, he’s most definitely spending his time watching sci-fi, writing a bit of his own, or acting it out by searching toxic dumps and secret science labs for superpowers.

Related Posts

  • I know this isn’t about a movie (though it soon will be) but in the Marvel Comic the Runaways, shapeshifting alien Xavin can take any form, and chooses to be black. And the way she is written is a perfect blend of addressing her race choice without making a huge deal out of it. At one point, they go back in time and she chooses to take on the form of a white male for necessity’s sake,and they discuss race very nicely there, too.
    They’re possibly making a movie of this comic. I hope they leave the shapeshifting, gendershifting black queer Xavin in the film. She would be an excellent example of a non white alien.

    • I can’t say too much on the comic, the first volume turned me off

  • It was a good thing Doctor Who had the character of Martha Jones, an intelligent and brave girl, being ambassador to the Universe. Oh, much better than previous companion silly blonde Rose Tyler. And they had Mickey Smith before too.

    • I liked rose, she was a good example of a working class east ender (east end of London). I think her aperence was a big part of her character. Which is a change from just casting white for the sake of it.

      Micky was her ex which was a nice twist.

      • Grainne Gillespie

        Micky was a good character, he went from being a wet blanket who was a doormat for Rose to a competant fighter who would make a good addition to Torchwood

  • guest

    What if it was a movie where the aliens were aggressive and the humans were fighting back at them? And these aliens decided to take on a human form of a non-white race? Wouldn’t that make Hollywood look bad?

  • Hokuto

    I remember someone defending Dragonball Evolution because since Goku is an alien he has to be white; that an Asian alien would be “ridiculous”.

    • Aiyo

      I remember some were defending the casting for Dragonball saying Goku is an alien and having a Japanese alien would be weird well if having an Asian alien is “weird” how come white superman who is an alien too isn’t weird?

      Superman is an alien who looks white so when he comes down to earth and lives with a white couple and no one thinks twice that isn’t their son.

      it goes to show how white is considered default and normal even in a fantasy world

    • Jon

      Well, Asians are human, and human aliens are ridiculous, therefore Asian aliens are ridiculous, but I don’t think that’s what they meant.

      On Deviantart, there is a more pluralistic association, but I can’t help but feel a bit offended by American Indian elves, for obvious reasons.

    • CCA

      Ever see Destroy All Monsters? The aliens in that resemble Asian women. But the real problem is ok, so they cast an Asian man as Yamcha. In terms of anime, unless the setting and character names indicate otherwise, the human characters are Japanese. But we’re talking about expensive, licensing-based movies. I’d be very curious to see the sales figures on the DBE toyline. Because there is something twisted in that you can base a line off of humanoid turtles but it’s only now we’re getting a Static action figure. http://dwaynemcduffie.com.lamphost.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=2749&sid=843be7f03764e574f5dbda2799744ba1 

  • Bluegirl1

    The reason humans have different “races” in the first place is because of different climates on earth. It’s impossible for aliens to all have the same appearance even if they look human. How they look should depend on the climate on the planet they come from. I think vulcans like spock from star trek should have been darker because the planet vulcan was hot and sunny.

  • Keanu Reeves is mixed. I mean, he passes for white (he usually gets cast for white characters, too) but I find it weird that this article didn’t comment on Reeves or Morena Baccarin (lead actress of V) being mixed — if you google for Baccarin’s ethnicity, she’s described as mixed, hispanic, and white, alternately. Which doesn’t make this article untrue — if anything, the two of them are the exceptions that prove the rule, with Baccarin’s character especially playing into the racist myth of “hybrid vigor”.

    For reals, though, I can buy aliens, I can even accept aliens that just HAPPEN to look exactly like humans do (or “they look entirely human except they have pointy ears and green blood…”), but all-white aliens stretch my suspension of disbelief way too far. Wasn’t “I Am Number Four” also about aliens, all (or most) of which were played by white people?

    • Anonymous

       Um Hispanic isn’t a race. Both her parent might be white where *one* of them might come from a Spanish speaking country or is a descendant from Hispanic or Latino parents. Latinos or Hispanic can be of any race.

    • Demonique

      Morena Baccarin is mixed, she has a slighty hispanic look to her.

      Funny that the article didn’t mention the POC visitors, Ryan and Malik, though technically Ryan might not count as a V since he jumped ship to live as a human

  • Thawhtet8

    One problem, The guy from K Pax is actually a lunatic or (soul taking a white guy’s body.
    P.S- Superman started as white in 1934 by jewish comic artist.

  • There is also the reverse–doesn’t look human, but sure sounds looks and sounds like a stereotype. *cough* Starwars *cough* Especially the newer movies.

    • Anonymous

      hmmm…I wonder who you could be talking about??!!

      *cough* Jar-Jar Brinks*cough*

      • I don’t know… Jarjar Binx (Jamaican gone wrong) the Aliens that were short with the slit eyes which were the enemy (With the awful accent to match–Hmm.. Japanese-general East Asian stereotype?), the Diner Shop Alien (African American? Anyone?)… I mean *how* offensive could it really be?

        But then I should note that the stereotype of the alien being short with slanted almond eyes and no nose came out during World War II. Since that’s true, why not make an alien with a turbanish head, and then say they “blow up all over the place.” *rolls eyes* Most aliens are that look foreign are used for “race scares.” Believe me, because guess what the Japanese version of an alien looked like in WWII. It looks like a tall pale thing with a big huge nose.

        Documenting that would make for an interesting psychology/culture paper. (Also the cow thing.) There is enough documentation for the fact that alien scares coincide with night terrors.

  • Mariktbone

    I feel like it should be pointed out that Doctor Who has explored many alien races and does a good job of having them include people of diverse races, whether the species in question is humanoid or not…. I can definitely see how the eponymous character being repeatedly white is a problem though, but so far they have had excellent actors particularly in the new series, so maybe in a future incarnation we’ll see him played by a person of color (or even maybe a woman, since its revealed in a recent episode that time lord regeneration doesn’t have to be exclusively the same gender).

  • Corrine

    it’s laura not linda vandervort

  • bwsmoney

    Keanu is asian

  • Jon

    We could include the entirety of Star Wars. Tatooine’s like Tunisia, with two suns. Two suns! You’d expect darker skin with two suns!

    Speaking of science fiction, there’s always the Beastmaster as a good example of how Hollywood changes things. The Norton novel has a Navajo acting in a stereotypically non-Navajo role (except for the talking with animals, which IIRC had more to do with government modification than Indian magics). The movie based on the novel had a white guy running around ancient Mexico (with not a single Indian, but there is a token black guy) in a loincloth, but still talking to animals.

  • suto_vu

    When your country is mostly white, and most of the consumers of your product are white, sometimes it makes good business sense to make your product appeal to white people. Just a thought.

    • Anonymous

      If America is the so called melting pot it claims to be shouldn’t it be more inclusive. I mean is it really that hard for white people to relate to someone with different skin than them? POC have to relate to white people all the time.

  • Sam

    This is in the top 10 ridiculous sites I’ve ever seen. 

    The vast majority of writers create charactors based on themselves and their friends… 

    I would posit that the vast majority of the above-mentioned aliens were written / cast / and directed by white folk… so OBVIOUSLY they would create folks they could identify strongly with. If I happen to be born white, and am a writer, am I really expected to write charactors that I have no experience with and cannot identify with. e.g. An american indian looking alien, or a black looking vampire? This website in my opinion IS racist – looking for racism where non exists is racist in my books!

    Question: How many novels have been written with aliens in them by black authors for example?

    • guest

      “looking for racism where non exists is racist in my books!”

      Then it’s a good job you don’t get to decide what words mean, isn’t it?

    • Anonymous

      i hate that whole looking for racism crap its their and it is blatant and we are calling it out.

      And maybe if you expand your horizons you will discover many sci-fi and fantasy books written by POC. The late Octavia Butler a Black American woman was a great science fiction author

      • If this guy says we’re in his top 10 ridiculous sites I’m guessing he hasn’t discovered goatse yet.

        • Anonymous

          OMG flashbacks are scaring me right now. (runs to corner to sit in foetal position)

    • Coffee

      Begin with the works of Octavia E. Butler.  And yes, she often created white characters.

      Also, why shouldn’t a white person be able to create characters of all races?  The whole premise of the article is that SCI-FI writers are supposed to be imaginative and innovative by definition.  If they can’t think beyond “white is right,” then they aren’t truly taking advantage of the potential the genre offers.

  • Bleh

    In all fairness, the aliens in 3rd Rock did decide they were *Jewish*, even if they are white. And V also had the black alien guy.  And he was good.

  • Full Metal Ox

    “If I happen to be born white, and am a writer, am I really expected to write charactors that I have no experience with and cannot identify with. e.g. An american indian looking alien, or a black looking vampire?”

    So what you’re saying is  that you can identify with an alien or a vampire, but not with a fellow human being whose melanin level differs from yours. 

    • It’s funny because writers of color and women writers in Hollywood write–and wouldn’t have a job if they couldn’t write–white male characters all the time.

  • Chet

    Thank you Eric for masterfully saying something I’ve complained about for eons. I’m writing a book about what I consider a paradigm shift that seems to be happening in world culture. One of those shifts will be a backing away of white imagery as movies continue to make more money globally. The rise of Bollywood (India), Nollywood (Nigeria) and Chollywood (China) means that movies don’t need white people to do well. Producers will figure it would be better to include a broader range of characters, even in the role of aliens.

    Keep telling the truth!

  • Guest

    Authors write about different human types all the time. They have to. But the heroes, the main characters, are usually going to reflect what they know best. When they don’t, it is painfully obvious. As an avid fan of books, every time a female author writes her main male character I can tell. And vice versa. I say main character, because it is easy to write a vast number of peripheral supporting characters or characters with additional features to their humanity such as the Potter books, or for an adult author to write children of opposing genders. But a main adult character is usually obvious to me that it is from the opposite point of view no matter how hard they try. I imagine the same would be for different races. How would I know if the black main character is being portrayed authentically? And why must it always be black that is being complained about, or skin colors? Let’s not forget that the Irish and the German had horrible oppression and prejudiced actions against them in USA’s Industrial Age. Why not Eskimo or Asian? Why not Irish or Jewish? Race and  any different cultural background can be so vastly different from my own how could I possibly know if it is being done well enough to convince an Eskimo that the character is Eskimo” More to it than snow and parkas. Furthermore, Hollywood puts out what sells to the bigger audience. There are those who make films to appeal to the cultures and races other than mainstream white. They don’t normally get good box office. Shrug, just the way it is and always will be in the money game. I don’t consider it “bad” or “prejudiced.” One day, hopefully, it will be the Native Americans who have the upper hand again, and the movies will be typically redskinned. One can only hope.

  • Vandere

    Aliens or extraterrestial are pale, brown eyes, and brown hair and they are like Hispanics and puzzling.  Simple.

  • Serenitydan

    What movie were you watching? K-Pax was not really an alien, he was a crazy guy.

  • Venom

    A notable example that wasn’t mentioned is the X Files episode The Unnatural. It’s a baseball-themed episode that took place some time in the past (when there were still negro leagues) and guest starred Jesse L. Martin (a.k.a. Ed Green from Law & Order). He was an alien (who could choose any human form he wanted) that just loved to play baseball and was a very very exceptional player, but he was being tracked by a bounty hunter. That’s why he chose to be a black man; nobody would care all that much about the negro league players, no matter how good they were, so he would be safe from being noticed.

  • Pingback: Wait, He Wasn’t White in the Novel! « differenttogether()

  • Ewa

    Keanu Reeves isn’t white. Aliens are usually white because movies/ comics are made by white people. US is mostly white country, and since is democratic , movie/comics characters represent majority. Dr Who is british serie, UK is mostly white country, also democratic. If you want asian casts and asian comics go back to Asia. Otherwhise, suck it!