The whining of racists echoes across the internet and TV channels over a Star Wars that stars a black man and a black Captain America fighting white supremacists. Obviously, there’s still something to be said for representing minorities in our fiction. But representation of marginalized people in sci-fi and fantasy does far more than tick off bigots, it can also have some real, positive impact on marginalized people. Let’s explore some works that show representation matters in how they had a positive effect on people’s perceptions and on marginalized people themselves.
This is by no means a complete list, of course. There’s plenty more sci-fi and fantasy out there that has made an impact, so I could do more articles on this subject (and likely will). In the meantime, be sure to shout out about sci-fi and fantasy that you think had important representation in comments!
Star Trek is well known for making an impact with its vision of a multi-cultural future that had equal treatment afforded to all races and genders- quite a radical concept in the 1960’s. Among other things, Star Trek had the first inter-racial kiss on television. But a lot of the best anecdotes about the impact of the show have to do with Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura. In an era where most black women on television were presented as being servants, Uhura was a member of a spaceship crew on equal standing with the other members and she was treated with respect.
Seeing this was increidibly important and inspirational to many black people, especially black women. Whoopi Goldberg pointed out that before Uhura, “there were no black people in sci-fi, anywhere”. Goldberg recalls running through the house after first seeing Uhura when she was nine years old, hollering "Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!”
Whoopi Goldberg and Nichelle Nichols, Paramount Pictures
Goldberg stated that it was seeing Uhura that made her realize she could be anthing she wanted to be and started her on the road to being an actress. She stated that she realized there was a place for people like her in the future.
In fact, Nichols' role as Uhura was so important that Martin Luther King himself commented on it. Nichols was thinking of leaving the role of Uhura to pursue a career on Broadway, when King told her “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become an symbol. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”
He also explained “You are our image of where we're going, you're 300 years from now, and that means that's where we are and it takes place now. Keep doing what you're doing, you are our inspiration. It was then that Nichols realized her role was far more powerful and important to people of color than she’d ever realized.
Mae Jemison, NASA
Nichols was even later employed in a campaign to encourage minorities to join NASA. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, cites Star Trek and Uhura as an influence on her decision to be an astronaut. Talk about an impact!
Way back in the 1940’s, William Moulton Marston stated that he created Wonder Woman to inspire women and help them realize they can be heroes. Did Wonder Woman succeed in doing that?
We certainly see her effect in the early days of comics with little girls writing in that they wanted to escape their sexist society and go to the woman-only world of Paradise Island. Gloria Steinem, an influential feminist and the founder of Ms. Magazine, certainly made it clear she was influenced and inspired by Wonder Woman to fight for women herself.
She even went so far as to say she and the other founding editors of the magazine had been “rescued by Wonder Woman in their childhoods”. Many other prominent female authors described themselves as “devouring” Wonder Woman comics and Jane Yolen called her “the female hero…I sought.”
2009 Wonder Woman Day Poster
Wonder Woman has been employed as symbol in the fight against breast cancer and domestic violence. “Wonder Woman Day” is a charity event that happens on October 26th every year. The event is all about raising awareness of domestic violence and raising money for domestic violence shelters. An awesome variety of Wonder Woman art is auctioned off and all the proceeds go directly to charity. Of course, direct donations are accepted as well.
In the end, it’s safe to say that in many ways Wonder Woman has done what Marston wanted her to do. She's helped many women come together and realize they can be the heroes of their own lives.
Sailor Moon’s presentation of female heroes reigning supreme and inclusion of lesbian characters as heroes had an undeniable impact on both women in Japan and those across the ocean as well.
Mari Nishimura cites Sailor Moon as “nullifying constraints” against women in action manga and leading women to play a bigger role in sci-fi and action comics that came after. She also credits the story’s lesbian power couple of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune as inspiring more authors to explore lesbian love in their manga.
Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune from Sailor Moon, Toei Animation
Akiko Sugawa-Shimada did some studies on the social impact of Sailor Moon and found some positive things. She noted that girls who watched Sailor Moon tended to work together and rely on their female friends for support more. She shared an anecdote about a young girl in China who was being bullied by a male classmate. She relied on her female friends in response, gathering them up as her own “Sailor Soldiers” and telling the bully “in the name of the moon, we will punish you” (Sailor Moon’s iconic catchphrase). Sugawa-Shimada said that “they used the image of the Sailor Moon team to form female solidarity and to protest male power”.
Though admittedly not coming from the most unbiased standpoint, the producer of the current Sailor Moon musicals also credited Sailor Moon with uplifting women. Many female artists, both in Japan and in the West, credit Sailor Moon as inspiration into become an artist. Some famous lady artists and animators who cite Sailor Moon as an influence include Natasha Allegri (Bee and Puppycat, Adventure Time) and Rebecca Sugar (Steven Universe, AT).