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Stereotypes and Bigotry in Science Fiction & Fantasy

(Image: CBS)

I recently ran across 2 interesting blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy often shove people into fixed categories because of species. First, Salem MacGourley wrote about why he prefers to play humans in role-playing games:

I'm really kind of a fan of humans. This translates into my gaming habits, as there's many games out there that let you pick not only male or female, but species as well. I always roll human. Sure, Dwarves might be stronger, Krogans might be more resilient, Asari might live a thousand years longer, and Elves might be bastards, but give me a human any day. Us humans, we can do anything. I can't, for the life of me, remember the source of the quote, nor can I the quote itself, but on Star Trek, probably Deep Space Nine, there was a quote about humans that's stuck with me. You take 10 Klingons, you've got 10 fierce warriors. 10 Ferengi, you've got 10 shrewd businessmen. 10 Romulans, 10 expert spies. But you take 10 humans, you don't know *what* you're dealing with. They could be anything. You can't plan for humans.

Why is that? Tamara Keel explains:

What you get is ten bigots. Because, see, humans, specifically the humans that wrote that script, look at ourselves as "people" and the other people, the ones with the pointy ears or the furry feet or the bony ridges on their foreheads, as "archetypes".

All Klingons are honor-loving warriors. All dwarves are beer-swilling Lawful Good blacksmiths with, for some reason, bad fake Scottish accents. All elves are ethereal granola-munching bunny-hugging archers. But humans are people and therefore can be good or evil, horticulturalists or mechanical engineers, priests or physicists, saints or monsters.

In Dungeons & Dragons, dwarves can't be rangers and halflings can't be magic users, but humans can be any character class. In Star Trek, the United Federation of Planets is a galaxy-spanning polyspecies polity, but the officer's mess on any Starfleet vessel looks more like a board meeting at Augusta National than it does the cantina in Star Wars. The most homogenous, conformist technological society on planet Earth has everything from tattooed yakuza to sumo wrestlers to lolita cosplayers, but you could title a documentary on Klingons Fifty Shades of Worf.

This tendency has long struck me as a weakness of Star Trek. You could have a Klingon society dominated by warriors, but only if it was a constantly expanding empire with a booty-based economy, such as Fifteenth Century Spain. Ferenginar could exist as a mercantile city-state similar to Seventeenth Century Venice. But the entire populations couldn't consist of warriors or merchants. At minimum, someone would have to build and run the machines.

Occasionally Star Trek's writers addressed the discrepancy. Nog once commented that his father Rom would have made a great engineer if only he hadn't been pressured to go into business. It just would have been nice if the series had kept going and given even more sociological depth to alien cultures that were easily stereotyped.

-via Glenn Reynolds

It feels rather too harsh to accuse science fiction (Star Trek certainly) of bigotry. At worst you could say weak writing, but I don't think that's typically the case either. Don't forget, these races are fictional creations usually dreamt up to make a point or to tell a particular type of story.

A typical Star Trek MO is to create a society with one very specific, pronounced cultural trait so it can hold up a magnifying glass to that aspect of our culture, without all the real-world baggage in the way. These episodes are like hypothetical questions with funny foreheads and the occasional phaser battle.

You mention Rom in this post, but don't forget that he did actually quit working in the bar and became a great engineer. And Nog joined Starfleet and became a capable cadet. Even Quark had countless episodes when the writers made him face the consequences of his greed. My point is, they're not all two dimensional stereotypes, they're certain types of character in service of a certain type of story.

Another example: The Borg. The first time we meet them they are soulless killing machines. The second time they try and take over Earth and end our civilisation. The third time they meet one in isolation and come to empathise with it. Even the Borg aren't as one-dimensional as they seem. This is not a show looking to peg any particular species as any one thing.

Star Wars, maybe you have a point. A lot of those races seem to be imitating human racial stereotypes without trying to make a bigger point about cultures and attitudes. But I'm not really well versed enough to be sure. Same for fantasy races. If Dwarves were all multi-dimensional complex beings, what would make them Dwarves? Just their appearance? Somehow I think that would result in less interesting stories, not more.
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Interesting article and something for writers and readers to consider. I know my own series has certain expected story roles filled by the cultures I have created. I think one thing this article fails to point out is that Star Trek did break some of their own stereotypes.

For example, in DS9, we had storylines that involved female Ferengi pushing norms of Ferengi society, acquiring profit and trying to better their roles. So while ST may have created some stereotypes, they also sought to break them. I try to do the same with my own created cultures/societies, having characters break the mold; I find it makes for interesting plots and more interesting characters.
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Interesting topic, it's true that the different races in something like Star Trek tend to fit certain molds and be fairly uniform. There's often a representatives from each species that is a major character that lets us see much more deeply in to their culture and who tends to develop beyond those limits.

It makes me think of other shows, in particular I'm rummaging through my memory of Babylon 5. Aside from certain races that seemed rather aloof or the more hostile races and alliances, I think my sense is that everyone is out for themselves. Everyone is more "human" as you would put it in describing Star Trek. You have people from each race where some are more willing to make friends and allies of other races and others will fiercely protect their "uniqueness" or be hostile to others, you have a lot of stressed relationships between certain members of different races. You never quite know how involved they are or how much a Vorlon cares about everyone else's issues but then you have the Minbari with their cultural differences but in the end who are diverse but also much like a mirror in to humanity.

I feel the need to rewatch it now though, my memory is rusty and it's a fantastic series.
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in Star Trek TNG there's an episode where Beverly Crusher defends a ferengi scientist. He is nothing more than a scientist who lacks respect in an intergalactic cut throat universe. And as someone else mentioned, there was that episode with the lone borg who kinda had a personality.

while maybe somethings are broadly painted, if you take a decent look you'll find depth and variety in - i'm willing to wager - any sci-fi with a strong fan base. The fans don't go for one note worlds.
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