That Old Black Magic: Women, Race, and Post-Millennial U.S. Science Fiction Television

Elyce Helford |

Though the present and future of post-millennial American science fiction television varies greatly from program to program, all are arguably driven by a melting-pot white ethic that reveals gains for white women and far less for people of color, especially African American women. While programming remains overwhelmingly produced by white men, white female characters have arguably reached parity in visibility, power, and nuance with their white male counterparts, particularly as focus has shifted from exploring outer space to cop shows with speculative technologies and physics anomalies. By contrast, roles for women of color— particularly the African American women who dominate non-white female SF TV presence—have changed little since the 1960s. Token gestures to multiculturalism continue to rely on reductive and all-too-familiar stereotypes.

Take, for example, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), the white female protagonists of Fringe (2008-2013) and Warehouse 13 (2009-), respectively. These critical thinking women with weapons and even, in the former case, drug-induced superpowers, share equal screen time with their white male counterparts, even if, in both cases, there are two men opposite each woman, a young action-hero suitor/brother type and a weird scientist father figure. Each in her own way, Olivia and Myka, are dynamic, psychologically complex characters with personal and family backgrounds, interpersonal struggles, and bravery that avoid hypermasculine emotionlessness. Depth is relative to the seriousness of the scripts, of course. Fringe’s Olivia faces far greater peril – not to mention chemical enhancement and exposure to gruesome bodily atrocities that most horror films only dream of – than does Myka in the semi-comic Warehouse 13. Death is far more rare and non-gallows humor is in greater supply in Warehouse 13, making it similar to Eureka (2006-2012), the third text this article will explore, a series about a town of super-scientists, policed by a white male sheriff of average IQ and ambitions.

None of these SF ensemble drama casts are entirely white, nor do they suffer the degree of tokenism seen in earlier science fiction television. The original Star Trek (1966-1969), for instance, rounded out its post-Civil Rights/pre-second-wave feminist era cast with Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), an African American galactic receptionist in hot pants who was never featured centrally in an episode. If tokenism’s purpose is to bolster white patriarchal capitalist ideology while avoiding accusations of racism/sexism, Star Trek exemplifies this well, with even less visibility of women of color in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). Through Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and Voyager (1995-2001), the franchise included an African American male space station commander and a white female captain (portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, who appears as the male hero’s mother on Warehouse 13), but no women of color in either primary cast. By the turn of the millennium, the Trek world could boast only one regular featured woman of color, the bartender Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), dispensing drinks and worldly wisdom as a kind of ‘Space Mammy’ on multiple episodes of The Next Generation.

The most significant difference between past and present-day representation of non-white women characters might be said to be its self-consciousness. To make up for the white-guilt-inducing representational sins of the past, contemporary U.S science fiction television offers multiple examples of African American men as token commanders, powerful in rank if not developed in character (from the early example of Deep Space Nine’s Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) to Fringe’s Major (and eventually General) Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick).

Eureka Alison BlakeOne might argue that empowerment has also reached female characters of color, exemplified well by Eureka’s Allison Blake (Salli Richardson-Whitfield). Intelligent, articulate, and powerful within a corporate structure, she seems neither tokenistic nor stereotyped within a cast that features other actors/characters of color (and white ethnics) in central roles. Eureka, however, does not reveal interest in exploring race issues in its small town, adopting a ‘beyond race’ position where Allison’s primary social concern is for the safety of the town, and her interpersonal conflicts vacillate between her quandary over the love of two strong white men and raising her adopted, autistic African American son.

The women of color in Fringe and Warehouse 13, by contrast, are immersed in racial construction not by culture or conflict regarding racism (or some metaphoric SF Othering) but by their textual placement as magical negro figures. A common American media trope and throwback to the Noble Savage and the Sambo, the magical negro figure is generally non-threatening and servile, most known for a mystical ability to help white people in need. Warehouse 13 offers two African American female cast members, secondary to the white leads, and shrouded in mystery (at least to date in the program, currently filming its final episodes). Most obvious in this regard is Leena (Genelle Williams), the young woman who runs the boarding house in which the white protagonists live. She has a psychic ability that allows her to read and understand others’ emotions and motivations, as well as – in later episodes – a link to the dangerous artifacts she sometimes helps properly place in the Warehouse for safety. Leena’s role is entirely subservient, a domestic with magical abilities used when necessary and otherwise relegated to invisibility. Her background is never fully explored, nor does her sex appeal lead to involvement with other characters beyond her domestic/magical negro role.

The show’s only other regular woman character of color is the enigmatic Mrs. Frederic (CCH Pounder). Like Leena, we learn little of her personal background, and she has mystical powers linked with the Warehouse. Like the aforementioned Guinan, she is presented in desexualized, anachronistic dress, is inhumanly long-lived, and her primary role is caretaker. However, though she appears in less than half of Warehouse 13’s episodes, Mrs. Frederic is the titular director of the Warehouse. Breaking somewhat from type, she is neither non-threatening nor servile. Her demeanor links her more with men of color, like Phillip Broyles of Fringe, a strong and independent leader; however, as she appears suddenly and vanishes as mysteriously as she came, never ages, and uses mystical powers to save others, we certainly see more magical negro with mammy overtones than empowered Black feminist.

Warehouse 13 Leena and Mrs FredericIf Leena and Mrs. Frederic fall prey to racist and sexist media stereotypes, Fringe’s Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) falls even lower. The only woman of color in the central cast, we are told several times that Astrid is a fully qualified FBI agent; however, she rarely does more than assist in the lab and perform domestic tasks there. She serves primarily as the patient caretaker for white male central character Walter Bishop (John Noble), a mentally ill scientist who is the catalyst for much of what happens in the series. A running joke is that Walter almost never pronounces Astrid’s name correctly, and neither she nor the rest of the cast makes much of a fuss – even when he goes so far as to call her ‘Astroturf’ and ‘Afro.’ In only one episode do we meet anyone from Astrid’s life outside the lab, her father, and it is in a single scene showing her entering their shared home and expressing shared affection. The scene’s primary purpose, moreover, is not to deepen Astrid’s character but to contrast Astrid and her alternate universe doppelgänger, a high-functioning autistic version of Astrid who wonders if her father would have loved her more had she been “normal.” Even here, Astrid’s role is to comfort and care for another, lying to her double to soothe her emotional pain.

If post-millennial science fiction drama has to some degree emerged from tokenism into stereotype, and even occasionally edged beyond, the limits in roles for people of color remain glaring, especially for females. Fringe’s Olivia Dunham is everything one might ask of a white female character, neither defined by nor in denial of her gender. The same cannot be said of female characters of color. Racial difference is erased on the rare occasion of the developed female characters of color, such as Eureka’s Allison Blake, and it falls easily into racist stereotype far more often. Apparently, the twenty-first century is no more ready for a future invested in the politics of difference than was the twentieth…at least so far.


Bio: Elyce Rae Helford is Professor of English, Director of Jewish and Holocaust Studies, and affiliate faculty member in Women’s and Gender Studies, at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the editor of Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Helford  has co-edited Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek and Engaging the Woman Fantastic in Contemporary American Media Culture (forthcoming). Currently, she is completing a book which addresses gender, sexuality, and issues of Jewish assimilation in the films of George Cukor.


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