The Cringe-Worthy Way Sci-Fi And Fantasy Deal With Prejudice
When I sat down to watch Netflix's Bright, I knew that a David Ayer / Max Landis collaboration was going to be as subtle and tasteful as Ed-Hardy-flavored Mountain Dew. It delivered. The entire second half was such a gritty punch-a-thon that part of the script was probably nothing but onomatopoeia. What I wasn't prepared for was how terrible the racial allegory would be. This is something that popular sci-fi and fantasy stories do a lot, and they really don't seem to be getting better at it.
These genres have always been more willing to take on such issues, the theory being that audiences are more willing to hear about the plight of marginalized groups if you dress them up as cool aliens or something. But Bright doesn't make anyone uncomfortable with a discussion about race, because in Bright, the world is practically a racial utopia. Black, white, and Hispanic people are joined together in their hatred of orcs. Or maybe there's still racial tension between humans, but they definitely hate orcs more? And they like elves, I think? Also fairies exist, but they're more like birds than people, with no rights of their own ... it's best if you don't think about it too hard.
One thing is certain, though. In this movie, we're supposed to imagine black people are orcs. They're segregated into ghettos, they're accused of being naturally violent, and the central plot is about the first orc cop facing discrimination from other cops who assume he has more in common with the scumbags he's supposed to be arresting.
So, in the least-racist way you can, please imagine black people are hideous violent monsters who are physically stronger than humans and have large protruding fangs. Then understand in your kind human heart that we should accept these hideous monsters as equal to us normal, beautiful humans. And to demonstrate that, here is a heartwarming tale of an orc who proves himself to be One Of The Good Ones -- he even voluntarily cuts off his fangs! Let's pause for a moment and process that little bit of symbolism: To become good, he simply has to suppress the naturally dangerous element of his biology. That's all.
Yet it's the kind of parable that turns up over and over again in science fiction and fantasy stories that are reportedly trying to convey a message of tolerance. "Look, we get that you're having trouble seeing minorities as humans, so perhaps it would help if you imagined them as something that is A) objectively not human and B) inherently dangerous."
Doctor Who wanted to do a story about accepting Muslim refugees. Neat! So they recast Muslims as Zygons, space refugees who come to Earth after their planet is destroyed. They can "convert" others into Zygons, and they're shapeshifters, so they can secretly be anyone. Their true form is what I'll call a devil's octopus, a hideous red monster with suckers all over their bodies. Also, they can shoot lasers from their hands that reduce normal humans to a pile of electrified skin and hair.
It's OK, though! The point of the episode is that we shouldn't treat all Zygons as evil just because some of them are. ("You start bombing them, you'll radicalize the lot of them," the Doctor says, in case we don't get it.) We must accept these grotesque creatures as our own because they're good people on the inside, even though on the outside they are ugly, and also dangerous. And also they're literally not people.
Other times, we'll be taught about the hardship of forced labor via "Imagine the slaves are humanoid cyborgs!" Series like Westworld, Humans, and Blade Runner feature themes of repression and struggle against an exploitative system, which is great! But the method comes down to "Can you imagine what it would be like to have the system treat you like an inhuman machine intended to serve some powerful master? To show you, here are some beings who are literally machines, but wish they were human. It's like that!"
What makes it worse -- and weirder -- is that writers can't resist giving these marginalized groups some kind of superpowers, which in turn actually gives the fictional society a legitimate reason to fear them. The X-Men are clearly an allegory for one marginalized group or another -- the harassment from authorities, vitriolic anti-mutant rhetoric by demagogues, the need to hide their true nature in public, the radicalized faction demanding change under threat of force, etc. Only the stories keep ending up in the awkward position in which the mutant-haters are right. If the government won't allow us to buy bombs, they probably should keep an eye on the guy who can level a whole city block with his eyeballs. Professor X has a huge machine in his basement that gives him the kind of surveillance powers that would make the NSA feel weird inside. The public's fears are totally legitimate!
In True Blood, it's the same deal. The vampires are treated like garbage by fearmongering humans, which is sad, and also the vampires are in fact humans' natural predators -- strong and fast enough that they can kill us or turn us as soon as they succumb to their true nature (which is the same flawed message we called out in Zootopia last year).
All of these stories meant well, on some level. But it's really easy to get allegory wrong, and in a way that sends the opposite message from what is intended. Chance the Rapper said it best in a pretty awesome Twitter rant about Bright:
I realize that watching a movie about redistricting causing orc voter suppression would probably not perform well at the box office, but give me something better than another story about accepting something less than human into our good, normal people lives. That makes me think you wanted your story to have the veneer of an important parable of tolerance, but without having to think about it too hard.
Real-life repression is the result of a sprawling, impossibly complicated system meant to screw over certain populations in a million ways, some so subtle they're almost invisible. Well-meaning people want to help the rest of us understand by making it into a simple fairy tale. But this is the lesson all modern mass media needs to learn: It's very easy to dumb something down to the point where you just make it plain wrong.
Alternatively, do what video games do and just make everybody kill everybody, like in World of Warcraft, perhaps.
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