Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The 6 Most Accidentally (I Hope) Offensive Alien Races

So, originally I was going to write this post for Cracked, which is a great website and all, and then I posted it up there, and I looked at it, and they looked at it, and we all sort of went, "Nah." Because deep and meaningful commentary on social issues as displayed in speculative fiction isn't really their jam. But it is mine. Which means that you now get something a little different: a Cracked style article about how science fiction is racist and sexist and just plain mean. Because you totally needed more of that in your life.

Science fiction is awesome. It lets us imagine a future full of spaceships and blue food and alien sex. Lots of alien sex. Actually, a lot of science fiction is really just about the alien sex, which is more than a little bit weird and creepy and unsettling. But as with any medium, science fiction can actually tell us a lot about the world we currently live in. And I don’t just mean that it can tell us that we want to have sex with aliens. I think we all know that at this point. (Whyyyyyyyy?)

What’s cool about sci-fi is that it lets us explore worlds we’ve never seen and never will see, and think about our own social and political and religious issues divorced from the reality of our current situation. We can explore the possibility of a future utopian society with Star Trek, imagine what it would mean to be a space samurai in Star Wars, or just chill back and relax with the future of, you guessed it, alien boning with Mass Effect. (No, seriously, I do not understand this whole alien sex thing. It's oogy.)

There’s just one problem. Science fiction is still written by people who live in the unenlightened times of today, and as a result, sometimes science fiction, and specifically the alien races it portrays, can be kind of really incredibly offensive. Because in representing the social and cultural diversity of our world, sometimes writers get a little lazy and slip in stereotypes instead.

Don’t believe me?

1. Doctor Who’s Slitheen and Star Wars’ Hutts Are Everything You Could Possibly Hate About Fat People.

Doctor Who has never really been a bastion of good taste, if we're being totally honest. Sure, it's always trying really hard, but sometimes (a lot of the time), it teeters over from social satire into rather painful social cruelty. Star Wars doesn't really even have that excuse, since it's always teetering on the edge of being offensive to someone over something. But both of them manage to hit every possible button when they talk about fat people. 

Or fat aliens, if you want to get technical. We're talking here about the Slitheen from season one of NuWho, and the Hutts from Star Wars. In both cases, these races of aliens are clearly meant to represent fat people, and so they do it in the most offensive way humanly imaginable. 

With the Slitheen, it's not so much that the aliens are fat is the joke, but rather that the Slitheen are able to hide in the human race by hiding in fat people, and that the gas they excrete from being forced into the skin suits comes out as farts. In other words, fat people suits that fart a lot. It's just kind of mind boggling in how insensitive it is. Still, you can tell that it's not really an intentional slight. They just saw an opportunity and grabbed it. As opposed to Star Wars, where Jabba the Hutt is a fat, lazy, lecherous, slimy literal slug who sits around and eats all day while half-naked women prance in front of him.

Like, seriously? That is a combination of all of the possible slurs against fat people, in one super gross character. Good job, Lucas.

Tragically for George Lucas, he's going to come up a lot on this list.

2. Star Trek’s Ferengi, Star Wars’ Toydarians, and Futurama’s Decapodians Are Offensive Jewish Stereotypes.

It's weird, because I used to think that Western society was mostly over its whole "Jews are bad" thing. Like, I figured we got that out of our systems about sixty years ago. Apparently not. You've got Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Ferengi are characterized by their oversized facial features, a common caricature of Jewish features, and are typified by their love of money, underhanded dealings, and the subjugation of their women, all of which are historically stereotypes of Jews in Europe. 

And then you've got Star Wars: The Phantom Menace where Anakin’s slave owner, the Toydarian Watto is an annoying, money-grubbing pest with an overly large nose who tries to cheat everyone, deals in stolen parts, and is literally dirty. Like, I get that the noses are a stereotype, but they do realize that not all Jews have big noses, right? Mine is impeccably average, or so I've been assured.

And then in Futurama, Zoidberg is an unqualified doctor who is constantly mooching off his friends, is incredibly cheap, has relatives in the movie business who also grub money, and speaks with a stereotypical New York Jewish accent. Also his name is Zoidberg and he’s a lobster, which is a food outlawed by the Kosher food restrictions. Pretty sure this one isn’t unintentional as all the Decapodians are like this. Yeah. This one's definitely not accidental.

Again, what gives? Are Jews really the sort of culture that makes us in 21st Century America so uncomfortable that we must reduce them to weird stereotypes with huge noses? It's just deeply annoying.

My nose is normal. Stop looking at it.

3. Avatar’s Na’vi Are Space Indians.

I would like to have it known that I don't hate Avatar because I hate James Cameron. I hate it because it's bad. I also hate James Cameron, because he's a poophead, but that's more ancillary to the point. Avatar annoys me because it tells a really familiar story. You may remember this story from Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. In it, basically, the while male protagonist, representative of America, infiltrates a closed, sometimes indigenous society, and learns their mystical ways. 

He is seduced by how carefree and/or innocent they are, and he learns to love their culture. Then he accomplishes a feat of strength or skill that even the locals struggle with, something that should be literally impossible for an outsider who has been living with their culture for a couple of months at most, and he is elevated to the station of great warrior and sage of the tribe/culture/whatever.

Because anything a Native American/Japanese person/Na'vi can do, a white guy can do better.

Also, in Avatar, the Na’vi live in harmony with nature on their beautiful planet full of natural resources, until the big bad white man comes to take their land. Most of the ways the Na’vi are portrayed line up with traditional romanticized views of the Native Americans, and the narrative fits in with the whole "the Natives need white people to save them!" thing. Which is racist. Grrrrr.

4. Star Trek’s Orion Slave Girls Are Every Misogynists’ Wet Dream.

Well, for starters, they're called Orion Slave Girls.

In Star Trek: The Original Series, “The Menagerie, Part II”, the Orion slave girls are literally slaves, but slaves who can emit such strong pheromones that they are irresistible to any man, and as a result aren’t really slaves at all, but instead incredibly wily, animalistic predators who enslave their men with the power of sex. I did not make that up. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I've seen accusations of this type on MRA blogs.

For the record, women do not have a secret pheromone that we emit when confronted with a male we need to subdue. Women's historical oppression is not a cover for our sexy, sexy way of controlling the mens. Generally speaking, any sexual power that women wield is related directly to their lack of other power, as they have been stripped of rights by society, and this is the only recourse left. Also, objectification.

This one really makes me sad, because you can tell they were trying so hard to be like, "Yeah, the women were in power all along. You go girl!" But it turned out so, so wrong. It's a shame, because TOS is actually usually pretty great about this stuff.

5. Star Wars’ Gungans Are Just Racist. So, So Incredibly Racist.

Yeah. I'm not even going to bother writing this one out. Can we agree that George Lucas has a little bit of a problem? I mean he's got Toydarians, Gungans, Nemoids, Sandpeople, Hutts, and then a whole host of other races that are vague but still somehow a little bit offensive in their mannerisms or language or culture or physical appearance. He's just...he's a nice man but I kind of want to sit him down and play the Coke Commercial from the Superbowl in front of him for approximately ten years.

Wasn't that an awesome commercial? Respect.

6. Stargate’s Goa’uld Vindicate Every Racist’s Belief that Non-White People Can’t Do Anything. 

So this one isn’t so much about the race itself as what the show is really saying, as shown by their inclusion of these aliens. The show, Stargate SG:1 is based on the 1994 Roland Emmerich film (starring Kurt Russel and James Spader), that supposes that the pyramids weren’t really built by Egyptians, but rather by Egyptians under the command of alien overlords, who used the pyramids as spaceships. These aliens, the Goa’uld, also traveled throughout the universe using “stargates”, or giant stone rings that can open wormholes to other points in space. And then the military gets a hold of this stargate and decides to use it to explore the universe and rid it of the Goa’uld.

Which is fine. Cool, even. It’s a fun premise for a movie and a television show.

And, oh hey, they managed to explain why all of the “aliens” they meet in their travels through the stargate look so remarkably human. They are human! When the Goa’uld left Earth, they took some humans with them and scattered them throughout the universe to keep as slaves and potential Goa’uld hosts. Clever.

But here’s the thing. The whole series hinges on a simple fact: that the Egyptians, Mayans, and whoever else, did not actually come up with the idea for pyramids on their own, nor did they manage to draw up plans, supervise the building, or in any way significantly contribute to their greatest architectural marvels. So, basically, what the show is saying is that it is more reasonable to believe that aliens came down, infested humans, and directed them to build giant stone monuments, than that a bunch of brown people decided to do it on their own.

No, seriously. That’s what the show is saying. The Egyptians and the Mayans couldn’t have come up with technology and engineering advanced enough to build the pyramids. It must have been aliens.

This is made even worse by the fact that western historians have a really annoying habit of trying to attribute the building of the pyramids (which everyone can agree are awesome) to anyone other than the Egyptians. Or at least anyone other than the African Egyptians. Who were black. Because obviously black people can’t build something as cool as the pyramids, right?

There was even a weird pervasive myth that the pyramids were built by a group of white people, probably proto-Germans, who made their way to Egypt by ship, became stranded there, and formed Egyptian civilization (WARNING: don’t click that link if you want to keep liking humanity.). Because, again, any explanation, no matter how bizarre, is more palatable than the idea that black people built the pyramids. If you’re super racist, that is.

And that’s what Stargate is basically saying. By telling us that the pyramids were built because an alien came down, infected an Egyptian boy, and then he told everyone to build the pyramids, the show is telling us that Egyptians couldn’t have done it on their own. They needed help. And that’s just kind of super offensive.

Sure, it’s just a TV show (and movie), and sure, it’s a particularly silly TV show (and movie) with zap guns and bad CGI and planets that always seem to look a little bit like Canada, but can we really say that it doesn’t matter? Because it does. That’s what science fiction tells us. The way we view our world now affects how we act and what we’ll do in the future. So if we choose to believe that aliens built the pyramid, isn’t that going to change how we react towards the people who really did?

Or maybe the show is just an excuse to watch attractive people get jiggy with suspiciously humanoid aliens. You decide.

It's like alien races are hiding our deep seated stereotypes. Whoooa.


  1. In fairness to Stargate, unlike most ancient astronaut mythoi, it extends it to the white people as well, with Go'a'uld patterned after the Greek, Roman, and Celtic pantheons (also the Go'a'uld were long gone by the time most ancient monuments were built).

    1. And that helps a little bit in the show, but the movie source material is pretty...blatant.

    2. That is true.

    3. True but you did notice th'only good "god" aliens are the Nordic (Asgard) ones?

  2. I'm surprised that you don't consider this an appropriate article for Cracked - it seems well within the sort of thing they produce.

    It's an interesting article but some of the examples don't seem very well supported.

    Obviously Sci-Fi often comments on contemporary issues but the genre is fundamentally about asking the question "What if?". It's fundamentally about speculation.

    The Ferengi are clearly an exploration of a culture that takes capitalism to its extremes - "Greed is good" as a way of life. (Narratively they're a natural enemy for the socialist/post-scarcity Federation, though their first appearance was flubbed so badly they got largely relegated to comic relief rather than serious threat).

    I'd like to see a lot more than "The Ferengi an avaricious and underhanded race" to back up "therefore they're clearly meant to be Jews". Weird facial features might be suggestive if every second Star Trek character didn't have them.

    You may well be right about them, but you haven't *shown* that you are.

    Similar question/issue with the Orions - why should they be interpreted as representative of (human) women rather than just a speculative alien culture?

    In fact, I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on when speculative fiction should be considered speculative as opposed to a reflection on society. You seem like you'd have some great insights.

    P.S. My layman perspective on the whole 'ancient astronaut' thing was never about amazement that it was done by black people (and by indigenous people in South America) as that it was done *at all* without outside assistance. Humanity made the leap from primitive settlements to massive civilisations producing *50-story-tall buildings!* in an astonishingly brief period of time and that sort of out-of-the-blue phenomenal success encourages speculation. It seems an amazing feat for *people* to have achieved, regardless of race.

    P.P.S. Sorry my first comment here is so contentious. I've been reading through your blog and nodding my head a lot - this is just the first article that inspired me to comment.

    1. I went "Nah" mostly because, as you say, I don't make any strong causal arguments. I'm mostly just pointing and going, "Isn't that racist? That seems kinda racist. And racism is bad." So...not really the best work I've done, is it?

      As for the ancient aliens theory, we actually talked about it in some of my Africana Studies classes in college, and the problem isn't so much that they didn't think normal people could have built them than that the level of scholarship devoted to proving that black people didn't build the pyramids was considerably higher and more consistent than the amount devoted to proving that aliens built Stonehenge. That kind of thing. And, to be fair, it's still a bit racist any way you slice it. I didn't mention it but there's also a long-held theory that the pyramids were actually built by German sailors who got lost, wound up in Africa, built the pyramids, and then faffed off.

      Also, welcome to the blog!

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