Back in 2002, when I was in the last year of my undergrad degree, I wrote my minor dissertation on representations of queerness in science fiction. I wrote about how sci-fi showed us worlds where practically anything was possible. Except, apparently, for queer people to exist. I wrote about how British TV had, by that time, seen gay and transgender characters in soap operas, coming-out storylines in shows for teens, and even an openly gay kids’ TV presenter. We’d had Queer As Folk, a show by a gay man about gay men, showing some of the realities of life for gay men.
Yet science-fiction, a genre which could give us space exploration and universal translators and all types of alien beings living alongside humans, couldn’t give us any more than the barest hint of gay people even existing in those fantastical worlds.
I focused a lot of the essay on Deep Space 9 (my Trek of choice). It had the most queer inclusion of any sci-fi show I was aware of at the time. But what did that inclusion look like? Morally dubious bisexuals in the mirror universe, and a not-really-gay kiss between two genderfluid female-presenting characters. A friendship that the actors filled with queer subtext, which the writers then redirected because it looked too gay.
I queried why sci-fi, the genre of possibilities, couldn’t fathom a future where queer people existed with the same freedoms as cis-straight people, and why as a genre it seemed so far behind other genres. Even The Simpsons had done gay storylines by that point.
It’s 2020. Eighteen years since I wrote that essay. And we’re starting the year off by talking about how mainstream sci-fi movies are still barely giving us anything more than blink-and-you’ll-miss-it queer inclusion.
But they put a same-sex kiss in the new Star Wars film! comes the cry from straight fandom.
Okay, they put a queer relationship on the screen. But they didn’t put one in the story.
Inclusion is not representation. Inclusion in sci-fi at present is barely even acknowledging that we exist. It still isn’t giving us stories about us. It isn’t letting us pilot starships and lead rebellions and explore new worlds. Same for characters of colour, for characters with disabilities. We might be there supporting other people’s stories, but our stories are rarely the focus.
Stories show us our possibilities. Remember ‘Far Beyond The Stars’, that wonderful DS9 episode that reframed the show as a story written by a black man in 20th century America, and showed us clearly what happens when marginalised people are denied possibilities – how it keeps us down and shuts us out and reminds us that we do not have the freedom to aspire and dream the way straight white cisgender able-bodied people do. How we have to fight twice as hard for half the reward. Again, that was two decades ago, and what’s changed? How many sci-fi films and shows have central characters who aren’t straight white cisgender able-bodied men? How many people were close to rioting at the thought of making The Doctor, a sci-fi staple, anything other than a white man?
Stories inspire us and give us hope – how many of us played out stories we’d seen and read in the playground? As a young kid, my friends and cousins played He-Man and She-Ra, but the roles were always assigned. “You’re the girl, you have to be She-Ra.” The stories we consume and the roles available to us absolutely shape our ideas about what we can aspire to, so when our choices are limited, our aspirations are limited. When the lead roles continue to go to straight white able-bodied cisgender men, the rest of us once again resign ourselves to being limited. To being constrained.
Inclusion, though, is not representation. It’s not helpful when we see ourselves onscreen as the butt of the joke, or as the person in the background without a voice. Red Dwarf had plenty of moments where characters (mostly Rimmer) were implied to be less than straight – the dominatrix get-up in ‘Angels and Demons’, or Ace Rimmer’s close friendship with Lister – but it was always to let the audience laugh at the possibility. Not ‘isn’t it great that there’s a queer character included in the story’ but ‘haha he’s gay and that makes the straights feel awkward!’
Inclusion is not representation. Putting transgender characters in the Fall 2019 anime Kabukichou Sherlock could have been a great opportunity for inclusion. Instead, the trans characters were at best gag characters and at worst were vilified in the most frightening way imaginable, portrayed as mentally unstable murderers whom the straight leads could taunt, beat up and eventually kill.
Inclusion is not representation. When you can take the character out of the story without it affecting the story (as foreign cuts of films are wont to do) then the inclusion is tokenism. It doesn’t mean anything if we’re so easily removable. On the screen is not the same as in the story.
Inclusion is not representation. When a queer character is there for the staight characters to learn a lesson about being open minded and tolerant, that still keeps the focus on the straight character. When a black character is there to support the white lead’s story, they’re not a character in their own right – they’re a plot device. When transgender characters only ever appear in stories about their transness, and the difficulties they face because of it, it means that their stories are limited – they don’t get the freedom to exist the way cisgender characters do to have jobs they like and pursue hobbies unrelated to their transness and make friends and fall in love, because they don’t exist in the story beyond their transness.
Representation is out there, and when it’s done well, created by the very people being represented, it’s great. See The Penumbra Podcast for stories with very visible (or audible, at least) queer and trans characters. See Sarazanmai, which showed us a same-sex couple very much in love but without relying on stereotypes. See countless novels and comics by queer writers and writers of colour – far too many to list here. It’s out there, but we still have to search for it. It’s not mainstream. It’s not ‘appropriate’.
Because ‘mainstream’ still means ‘made for cis-straight white able-bodied men’, doesn’t it? If it’s not for them, it’s political. It’s pandering. It’s attacking straight white men. Or so we’re told, every single time someone tries to shine the spotlight on anyone who isn’t a straight white man (in a way that isn’t for the pleasure of straight white men). How many male-led Avengers films were there before Captain Marvel? And how many straight men complained that Captain Marvel wasn’t sexy enough for them?
And because ‘appropriate’, suitable for kids, somehow excludes same-gender-attracted characters. Kids can watch princesses kiss and marry boys, but heaven forbid they see a princess have a girlfriend.
It’s 2020. Eighteen years since I wrote about the lack of queer characters in sci-fi. And we’re still fighting to see ourselves onscreen. We’re still having to explain to people why a split-second kiss in the background isn’t enough. We’re still jumping for joy when one character in an ensemble cast says they’re not straight or cisgender (thank you, Hoshiai no Sora). We’re still feeling queasy when an anime uses transwomen as jokes or targets or villains (fuck you, Kabukichou Sherlock). We’re still celebrating Yuri On Ice and wondering why other sports anime stories can’t manage even half what it achieved in the way of including queer characters.
Inclusion is not representation. Representation is happening, but rarely where it needs to happen: in the mainstream, on the big screen, where people who still need to learn about acceptance will see it. Soap operas and sitcoms, decades-old formats which reflect life as it is, have been showing up for LGBTQIA people and people of colour for years now. But sci-fi and animation, formats where practically anything is possible, are still working to the same limitations, focused on appeasing the loudest voices and the biggest wallets, and still denying opportunities to anyone who isn’t straight, cis, white and able-bodied.
I don’t know how much fandom can change this. Given that Disney practically owns almost the entire entertainment industry, it’s tough for the underdogs to compete. And production companies and distributers don’t actually care if you liked their products after you’ve bought your cinema ticket or paid for your streaming subscription.
But I do think it’s important to champion the underdogs anyway; the creators putting marginalised characters front and centre. Because it’s not enough to put us on the screen. Someone has to put us in the story.