Remember Jar Jar Binks?
*Pause for the throwing of rotten tomatoes*
I know…I KNOW. He was an awful character in a mediocre? sucky? awesome? movie. (Don’t really care where you come down on Star Wars: Episode One. That’s a post for another time.) At best, Jar Jar was an annoying waste of CGI. At worst, he was a thinly veiled racist stereotype.
But Jar Jar was also a good example of a recurrent problem in film/TV/books, particularly sci-fi: cookie-cutter sidekicks and companions. The heroes in these things – your Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, Mal Reynolds or The Doctor – have their issues too. You could probably count on one set of hands of feet the number of prominent sci-fi heroes who weren’t men and probably on one hand the number who weren’t white guys. But, they tend to be at least reasonably well thought out, straight-forward characters.
Companions and sidekicks often don’t flesh out as well. Doctor Who has long been pilloried for the companions to The Doctor being primarily hot, young women. I can only think of maybe six or eight male companions in the entire fifty years since the show debuted. The new series that started in 2005 has done a (somewhat) better job making the companion more than somebody who stands there looking pretty and screaming at monsters, but still, they’re mostly hot, young women, many of which are openly or subtly in love with The Doctor. It would be nice if the show included more male companions and more woman who are as clever and kick-ass as The Doctor.
The original Star Trek series broke ground with Uhura, a black woman in a prominent role on the Starship Enterprise, and the show had a pretty diverse cast. But the Star Trek franchise has taken some hits over the years at the otherwise limited role of women. The new movie Star Trek Into Darkness (which I haven’t got to see yet) has taken some flack for an apparently gratuitous scene of a woman in her underwear.
The only prominent woman – only woman at all? – in Star Wars is Princess Leia. The original film series anyway. Then, in the second batch of films (Which is really the first batch? Still confuses me.) We get Princess Armadillo or whatever her name was. That’s it.
I don’t know why all this is. Obviously, it’s not only white men who write sci-fi. But with maybe the exception of Margaret Atwood, you really only hear about the men. And, just as obviously, not all those white guys are racist or biased against women. They’re just not writing, or not good at writing, diverse characters. Or so much work goes into the hero that the other characters get short-shrift. Sidekicks and companions, then, turn into stereotypes.
I feel bad for them.