By Imasha Costa
It has only been recently that there has been a mass representation of women of colour within the science fiction and fantasy genre. The likes of growing up with Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, it has been eerily uncanny that it has not been possible to see people of colour represented within the genres.
Yes, you could argue, that elves are meant to be fair-skinned, and are therefore white, but every single character within the genre? That’s a bit like saying, Tolkien’s world is all white, and therefore there are no people of colour that actually exist. The same goes for George Lucas & Disney’s Star Wars trilogies, where there are no women of colour – to my knowledge. However, in my opinion, there is the token person of colour – usually a man, such as Lando Calrissian, Finn or even the character that Samuel L. Jackson plays. There is not much of a plotline about their background or even what they are meant to be doing.
For most of the newer Star Wars franchise, Finn is literally running after Rey, a white woman. I rest my case there.
However, there has been a shift for more involvement of women of colour within the fantasy/science-fiction genre, and I think, this was first visible in Game of Thrones, with Missandei, who is first a foremost, an ex-slave, that has been freed by her oppressors. However, the one who does free her, could be argued to be seen as a “white saviour”. Even though it is great to see women like Missandei taking charge of their agency, it is still a bit complex to think that it is necessary for a white person to allow to give autonomy to a person of colour – in particular to women of colour.
However, with the emergence of a new genre, Afrofuturism, there has been a shift in the narrative with the history of the lead person of colour. Take, for example, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora, a slave, determines to find her own agency and escapes from the plantations in search of freedom and almost achieves it, but she ultimately fails. Visualising a future that isn’t all “white”, but instead filled with the experience of people of colour; the ability to infuse history with the future allows those that have lived the same experience of oppression of people of colour, allows one to see themselves within the world of the future, the rising world of technology.
Another great visualisation of women of colour within the genre is Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, where the main characters Alina and Inej, are both women of colour, taking on strong fighting roles as well as important storyline arcs. Even though Inej, was sold as a slave, and forced into prostitution, there is still the character arc of wanting to achieve her freedom and doing almost anything and everything to attain it. And she does, by the end of Season 1, potentially. Embodying the history of people of colour, such as slavery, colonization, and oppression, it is important to highlight that maybe we, women of colour, are able to achieve that freedom from oppression, and are destined to become better people, to be a fighter.
I say this as a woman, but I am also a person of colour first, and the fact that I am able to see a potential of myself on screen has really allowed me to feel more comfortable about watching/ reading fantasy. I try my best to find fantasy novels written by people of colour about people of colour, and by far, I have found some amazing writers and storylines. Take, for example, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and how the writer compiles African folklore into a world of fantasy and magic and addresses a coming of age character. The author initially wrote this as a response to police brutality within the United States. The story is influenced by the Yoruba Culture, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Quoting Adeyemi, she wanted to write “a story so good that even racists would read it.” The book invokes the issues of race and class and how it divides a nation. And it is an ideal read for understanding how in a fantastical world, there is the division between race and the effects of class. The more oppressed you are, the worse it is.
The fact that there has now been a rise in women of colour being featured within science fiction has allowed them to be involved in the conversations of their future. For far too long women of colour have often been neglected, and something interesting that Whitehead does in his novel shows how women of colour have often been oppressed by the innovations of newer technology. Sterilization has been one of the most oppressive forms of new technology that Black women have had to face within society. Involuntarily, women have been forced into sterilization and have been threatened by it because of their immigration status, housing, and employment. Whitehead highlights this in his newly imagined North Carolina, where Cora runs for freedom, yet freedom is not achieved.
Coming back to that idea of the emergence of women of colour within fantasy, they are far too often linked with slavery and breaking from slavery. Missandei in Game of Thrones, I love her, but she is still a slave to Daenerys Targaryen, and so is Inej in Shadow and Bone. When will they achieve freedom? Is it on the horizon for them? Or will they never see it? This is a question that will forever be asked, because of the history for people of colour, they will always be searching for freedom, yet women of colour have had it worse, due to the unwanted acts of violence they have had to endure, and are yet still not acknowledged. But they are being acknowledged now, and that is a good thing. However, we still have a long road ahead of us, and supporting women of colour writers is a step that you could take.
Buy books, art, music, by women of colour, be it young adult fantasy or science fiction. And this women’s history month, think about the women that have dedicated their lives towards making sure that we have the rights that we have right now. Marsha P. Johnson, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Audre Lorde.