Diverse Voices: Multicultural Casting Thrives in Sci-Fi Shows

Nov 30, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When it comes to stories about the strange and unusual, nothing beats science fiction. Whether it’s exploring the mystery of life on other planets, in other dimensions or in our own backyards, this is one genre where there are no boundaries except the imagination.
Because of that, sci-fi is also a genre where diverse casting is seen more often than not. Futuristic ideas that seem improbable when filmed can later become part of our everyday lives.
In 1966, at a time when racial segregation was still the norm in many parts of the country, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a multiracial, mixed-gender spaceship crew because he believed that racism and sexism would not exist in the 23rd century of the original “Star Trek” series. So along with its Caucasian crew members, the Enterprise had a black communications officer (Nichelle Nichols), an Asian helmsman (George Takei) and a half human-half Vulcan first officer (Leonard Nimoy).
It also introduced viewers to concepts such as laser surgery, desktop computer terminals, wireless handheld communication devices and scanners and computer speech synthesis—things we take for granted in reality 42 years later.
Many people say they have to see something in order to believe it. I think we must believe, or at least be open to believing, in order to see anything. Everything in reality begins with a thought, and what we think creates the reality we experience.
We’re lucky when we can share our thoughts openly without fear. Most of the time, though, we edit what we say in public because we don’t want to offend others, and we don’t want to be criticized or judged. To explore the uncomfortable, sometimes it’s better to picture a thousand hurts than to speak one.
“One of the things that’s great about sci-fi is you can attack issues through the allegories of sci-fi creatures and space that you could never deal with in a direct way,” says Mark Stern, executive VP of original programming at the Sci Fi Channel. “Look at ‘X-Men.’ It’s a great allegory for the issue of racism.
“You’ve got two mutant camps, one in favor of assimilation with the human race and the other advocating revolution. It’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of ‘live as one’ and Malcolm X’s approach through subtext and allegory.”
Whether the issue is political, religious or racial in nature, Stern says sci-fi shows can explore current-day problems without threatening viewers with controversial, in-your-face arguments.
Instead, a show can take us to another place and time and present possibilities as fact.
“One of the coolest things about ‘Battlestar Galactica’ is its color-blindness,” Stern says. “We don’t talk about Eddie Olmos being Hispanic and having a Caucasian son, or the interracial couples on the show. They just are. I don’t think you have to be a sci-fi show to do this. It’s important to be representative of all parts of our society. It enriches the storytelling, and is conducive to open-minded, speculative stories.”
Network executives trying to reach the broadest audiences are making a mistake if they focus on the fear that Caucasians will not watch shows with more diverse casts. The reality is our nation’s population is more diverse, and all of us want to see ourselves on TV, in the movies, in corporate board rooms, in Congress and in the White House.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago, five years ago, that we’d have a black candidate for president, I would never have agreed with you,” Stern says. “But I have to think seeing black presidents like (Morgan Freeman) on ‘Deep Impact’ and Dennis Haysbert as the president on ‘24’ helped to set the stage for President-elect Obama’s candidacy. Mindsets can change quickly. But if you’re too scared to present it, things will never change.”
A growing number of sci-fi and fantasy shows can be found on networks other than the Sci Fi Channel. Men and women of all races now can see themselves on hits like ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes.”
While diverse casting can be readily found on most sci-fi shows, Stern admits that diverse writing staffs are not. Most shows are written by white males, and without a strong push by executives and showrunners to change the status quo, what currently exists will remain in place until a lawsuit or some unpleasant outside pressure creates change.
If money is what drives business decisions (and unwanted change), here’s something to think about. Advertisers know the biggest influence in buying decisions is word of mouth, and that most purchases are made or influenced by women.
The New York Times recently conducted a study that has identified a key group of affluent female consumers dubbed “Marketing Multipliers”—women who spend more, know more and talk more to others about the products they like, influencing many more people in their purchasing decisions than other wealthy women.
The study found that Marketing Multipliers are active online, tend to be curious, are plugged in to new trends and enjoy being at the forefront of new ideas. Sounds like a sci-fi fan to me.
How many new audiences, vital to advertisers, could we tap into if we widened our talent base behind the camera to create shows that appeal to a growing diversity of viewers?
The 23rd century has arrived on the technology front. It’s the human frontier that needs to catch up.
Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.


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