Green Women: Women of Color in Science Fiction and The Marvel Universe

Guest Writer: Bri Williams; Los Angeles, United States

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Woman of color in space, or science fiction in general, is a topic I will return to time and time again; there’s much to discuss. For now, though, I’d like to talk about the color green. Specifically women of the color green.

Star Trek has a mixed track record when it comes to women of color. On the one hand, we have Uhura, a black woman, in space, treated no differently than her colleagues, and who engages in the very first interracial kiss on television. Cool. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry expressed that his vision of the future is an inclusive one; for him, progress is made, and anyone of any color or creed could join Star Fleet. Though perfectly understandable now, at the time, this was groundbreaking. COOL.

Before Star Trek, space was mostly inhabited by the Uncomfortably All-White Crew™. The reasoning behind this stems largely from the fact that race in the 1950s and 1960s was an integral, unavoidable, inescapable institution of society and to portray anything but the Uncomfortably All-White Crew™ would be a “statement.” In order to escape the topic of race relations altogether, creators simply avoided other races, and whether intentional or not, this created the disturbing implication that the future itself, is

white. That other people don’t make it to space at all. 

As I mentioned, Star Trek is groundbreaking and progressive. It also has Green Women. The women of the planet Orion in Star Trek are green. And they are “oriental,” or “eastern” or “tribal,” take your pick. They are seductresses. They are scantily clad, sexual, dangerous, (white)man-eaters. They are a mashup of stereotypes commonly dumped upon women of color. They are simply other, non-white. This isn’t to say that Roddenberry or anyone else had malicious intent in their creation. Nor is this necessarily the first example of a Green Woman, it’s just a well-known one. The Green Woman (who may or may not actually be green in practice), takes the place of the woman of color we are familiar with here on Earth. But is an Orion woman any different than a negative, stereotypical portrayal of a woman of color? Is a portrayal of a Green Woman to broadly signify non-white women as thinly veiled as the green body paint used to cover her?

And what of a different type of Green Woman? A modern Green Woman, if you will. One portrayed by Zoë Saldana.

In a Marvel universe largely devoid of women of color, is Saldana’s Gamora representing us? Or does the actress’s race not really matter because she’s not a human? Should we identify her as a woman of color just because she’s…a color? Or should we let Green Women be Green Women and untangle their history from our own? Can we have our cake and eat it too!?

To take a step back from the madness, I would like to forward the argument that representation can serve three main functions in popular media. At its simplest, it allows us to see people who look like us. We want to see people who probably had similar upbringings and cultural and societal experiences in the media we consume. It can be hard to relate to a text if nobody resembles you at all; it can be alienating. Star Trek, for example, showed that all kinds of people worked and lived in space; space wasn’t a white only place anymore. Even if a specific group wasn’t explicitly shown, it was implied that all were welcome. You could insert yourself and your experiences, and relate with the characters.

Secondly, representation allows us to explore those various upbringings and cultural experiences. A show like Fresh Off the Boat or Blackish depicts Asian-American and African-American families respectively, and though not everything will fit everyone in the given groups’ experiences perfectly, it allows you to explore that kind of experience. When there was only one type of family on TV, there wasn’t anything else to explore.

Finally, representation introduces us to new experiences we may otherwise have never known about. We harbor many misconceptions and stereotypes about groups of people; we are a tribal species, and this naturally translates into chronic stereotyping. Though it’s not a cure, representation helps treat stereotyping, by exposing people to other lifestyles and cultures.

So, in conclusion, representation is kind of important.

Where does that leave us?

It leaves us with Marvel’s Gamora and whether or not she is a representation of a woman of color. I’m just going to go ahead and state my personal opinion of “NOPE” right off the bat.

Here’s is why I included an overly academic analysis of what roles representation play in media. I did it because now I can accomplish my end goal of making a nifty multiple choice list.

Is Gamora (A) Someone who resembles us? (B) Someone who helps us explore different cultural backgrounds? (C) Someone who introduces others to new cultural information or (D) None of the above (or to the side of).

It's D.

Gamora is green. Gamora doesn’t have an Earthly background for us humans to relate to. Gamora doesn’t teach us anything about the aforementioned Earthly background that she doesn’t have.

The only thing she has going for her in this regard is the fact that Zoe Saldana (who is black) is playing her, but this doesn’t really make her any more woman of color than her sister, Nebula (who is blue) played by Karen Gillan (who is white).

Unfortunately, at its core, the Marvel movies (which I do love) are mostly populated by white dudes. There are no prominent black American women (though at least now there are black women thanks to Black Panther), and really few women of color in general (arguably there aren’t even that many women). And casting Zoe Saldana as a woman who happens to be green does not a representation of women of color make.

All said this is probably an argument against something that no one really actually argues. It’s an easy sell.  There is, however, still another argument beneath; was the Green Women of the past meant to represent the real women of color in their present? And this brings up all sorts of fun sticky topics of subtle racism and authorial intent. Which I’m not touching with a ten-foot pole right now. I will, however, bring up one final point:

As mentioned, Marvel is not particularly “women of color friendly”; we can file it under the “women of color get the short end of the stick in comic book movies, sorry,” section. So how can we still enjoy it? 

As a black woman, should I not enjoy more white men with their white men problems and their white men spandex? Well. At the end of the day, art is art (and I won’t debate whether or not the Marvel movies are art because, again, ten-foot pole), and I believe you can separate things like authorial intent and politics and representation from the final product if you allow yourself to do so. Everyone does this to their own extent, and that’s fine. If something offends you, it offends you and it’s completely valid. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I can enjoy the movies while also being aware of their representational shortcomings. I can lament the lack of people like me without crying racism. Life can be in shades of gray, not just black and white (pun). We are permitted to enjoy media and still acknowledge that it is problematic and we are not required to have a big speech about it ready.

I just happen to have a speech. Because I always have a speech. This is my speech

*Credit to Treknew

About Bri Williams:

Bri is a Los Angeles based, San Francisco State Alumni and film intern by day, science fiction writer and blogger by night. While in the SFSU creative writing program she was able to have three works make it into SFSU's prestigious biannual publication, Transfer Magazine. She aspires to be like her heroes, Rod Serling, and Octavia Butler someday, but for now, she reads her stories off of her laptop to her very patient dog to help her be brave enough to share them with other humans. You can follow her work @espace_noire.