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Packaging the Voice of the Other

2010 April 27

After the synchroblog last week and all the discussions surrounding the question of if the emerging church is too white, I’ve had a number of interesting discussions regarding the ways in which the voice of the subjugated other (subaltern) finds a space to be heard. For better or worse, I want to think out loud here and blog through a couple of those discussions that have really been running through my head these past few days.

A topic that I’ve repeatedly returned to this past year or so are the ways we have to contain the voice of the other in a safe and nonthreatening package in order to begin to hear it. In its most negative fashion this involves the essentializing and the trivializing of the other. We reduce other cultures to just the physical artifacts of their culture – their food, their music, their dance, their tourist appeal. Being open to the voice of the other simply becomes being willing to eat a new type of food, watching a film about an African safari, or putting on a cd of “world beat” music. On one hand, I know people who are so closed off to understanding anything outside of themselves that they can’t even accept these essentialized versions of the other. From those who think it is too exotic or weird to try new foods to those who think it is un-American to eat tacos, stepping outside of the known can be difficult for some people. That said it is often far easier to contain different voices in our interpretation of their cultural trappings or in an amusing stereotyped version of themselves than to actually engage.

So I find it interesting that one of the few places in American culture where the non-white male is allowed a central role and non-essentializing voice in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. I first started think about this awhile back when I read the plea to Pixar to make movies about “non-princess girls and the adventures they go on.” So many of the movies and books targeted to children are about boys and their adventures (with the occasional girl sidekick). If there is a widely popular story of a girl going on an adventure it almost always takes place in a fantasy world. Lucy steps through the wardrobe into Narnia, Alice falls down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, Dorothy is whisked away in a twister to Oz, Meg travels along the tesseract. Apparently little girls doing strong things like adventures can’t happen in real life, so they must be told in the realm of fantasy. (all those character’s mental stability is questioned when they return to the real world as well). Women having a voice and strength and power is a safe topic if it is contained by fantasy.

This ability to safely present the voice of the other under the guise of fantasy is well known in the world of Star Trek. When the first Enterprise embarked on its five year mission it truly went where no one had gone before by challenging the way race was portrayed in Hollywood. Women and minorities were cast as scientists and officers instead of in stereotypical roles (even as they still made use of stereotypes). The first interracial kiss on television was between Captian Kirk and Lt. Uhura (although to do so they had to pretend Uhura was possessed by a white alien at the moment). Challenging those boundaries through the setting of  futureistic outer-space was the safe way the conversation could be handled by the average viewer.

I recall reading an interview with one of my favorite actors, Alexander Siddig, on why he appreciated his role at Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: DS9. He said that for the first and only time in his life he wasn’t cast as “the Arab” instead Star Trek gave him the chance to play a brilliant doctor who just happened to be Arab. Since the series ended (and especially since 9/11) he has only been offered roles of strictly Arab characters – generally as some sort of terrorist. (since the interview he has played the non-race restricted roles of the Angel Gabriel in The Nativity Story and Hermes in Clash of the Titans – once again both roles set in the realm of fantasy and the supernatural). In the “real world” we are only comfortable seeing the Arab man as a terrorist, it is only in fantasy that he can have a voice as a person and not just a racial stereotype.

I am really torn with this “safe packaging” approach to listening to and respecting the voice of the other. It is demeaning and essentializing to say that women or minorities can only have a voice in the most trivial of ways or in futuristic or fantasy realms. But at the same time, presenting visions of the way we want the world to be through story form is the easiest way to get people’s subconscious to change. There is power in story and certain people who might resist respecting someone different from them in real life can suspend disbelief within the confines of the “impossible.” I guess what I am wondering is, can we even say the subaltern has a voice if it only appears within these sorts of safe packaging? Is that a real voice? Should this habit be undermined, or is it the best we have to work with at the moment?


17 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    April 27, 2010

    Yeah, I always wondered about those culture fair type events in high school. As I see it, culture is largely about a way of viewing the world and then the way of life that is derived from that perspective. Food, music, and clothing don’t get at those issues very well. Anyway, I have trouble believing that with all our modern, edgy TV dramas, women and minorities are only presented in trivial or humorous roles or sci fi/fantasy settings, though it is a problem I’ve noticed. I always wonder what the actors in those roles think of playing them. On the other hand, I don’t venture outside the realm of SFF very often, so I can’t present many counterexamples. But it seems worthwhile to find those examples and study them to see how they go about presenting the subjugated other and how well they’re received by the majority audience. I’m also interested to know why certain minority actors are very successful (Morgan Freeman, for example) and if there’s something that makes them different in white people’s minds. With Alexander Siddig, I saw an interview where he commented that people weren’t sure what his ethnicity was to begin with, heh. I admit that I was one of those people. I also wondered what Japanese viewers thought of Hoshi Sato on Enterprise being played by Linda Park, a Korean.

  2. Mick Bradley permalink
    April 27, 2010

    I have to credit the original Star Trek with inoculating me from a lot of the racism and sexism that was rampant around me as I grew up. I watched reruns of the original series from a very young age, and seeing all those people working together and relating to one another – and it being considered the norm – it actually sunk into my soul pretty solidly, enough to make me think that the unfortunate isms that I saw in the real world were the aberration. That stayed with me. It doesn’t make me immune to the crap – I’m a male Euro-white straight pseudo-hipster and I’m sure I’m up to my neck in privilege even as I try not to be. But Star Trek and other bits of sci-fi-fantasy stories have, I believe, helped me become better than I probably would have otherwise become.

    We can’t be satisfied or lulled into thinking that the safe packaging of sci-fi-fantasy fiction is enough, but it is something.

    Thanks for drawing me out, Julie. Excellent post.

  3. April 28, 2010

    Interesting point. I have to agree that for the most part in order to make something that is “alien” or “foreign” to a viewer, that something must be marketed either within a stereotypical way or in a fantasy type setting. I think this is done to make the viewer more receptive to the new idea. I think many people feel threatened when the “alien” is as good at or better at what the viewer is accustomed to. So in order to make the “competition” more likable the subject has to have a certain degree of familiarity to the viewer or exist outside of his realm. “Black Jesus” is not threatening to a white guy because he believes Jesus’ skin wasn’t dark but that Jesus becomes foreign to him and associated with black stereotypes which he may already have a dislike for. Even though the content hasn’t changed the packaging has, which is what most of us initially judge things by. So in order to make a strange or foreign concept or person acceptable it can’t feel threatening or unrelatable. Why do we like Spanish people? Because they are white (familiar) and live over there. While Mexicans speak Spanish but are not the same color as we are, generally, and they are moving into our space (foreign and threatening)(side note…I don’t dislike Mexicans, just using a common example). So if engaging a foreigner by eating their food or doing their dance makes us feel comfortable we will go that far. Few are willing to assimilate with or be more intimate with the “alien” because he is afraid to lose his identity in the sea of another persons culture. I hear it once in a while…”soon we’ll all be speaking Spanish”! The fear behind that is that we will be lose our identity and have to become something else.

  4. April 28, 2010

    Julie, you hit a lot of nerves with this post. On one nerve:
    The “girls” have their “mental stability questioned.” Yes, they do. As was Mary Magdalene questioned and doubted and derided. Part of it is that ancient subordination, a curse for the sake of safety over freedom, rather like your quote on your mast about “a cage.”
    Notice the story of the road to Emmaus. If I read it right, it is a couple who are walking and talking. We only get the name of the guy, Clopas, because in that world, women didn’t count and were not counted. Yet, if Clopas is the Cleopas of John’s gospel, then his companion is his wife, Mary. …and they are arguing! She is taking the side of the women who claim to have seen Jesus, while he is placating, “Now, now; there, there…”
    And the stranger sidles up. Immediately, traditional roles are adopted. Clopas speaks for the two of them and Mary does not speak at all, because, well, she and the stranger have not been properly introduced. But Clopas shares the men’s view of the situation, only adding that the women “have troubled us” with their “story.” When Jesus responds, he upbraids the official view, not the side Mary has been holding up.
    Jesus comes to us, at first, as the disturbing story from the people who are not to be trusted: shepherds, foreigners (astrologers!) and women. Magdalene and the other women were the apostles to the apostles. And so the curse was and is and must be broken with subversive truth, sometimes packaged as “stories.”

  5. April 28, 2010

    Trace – thank you for bring that up. It bugs me that so many people just assume that there were two men on the road to Emmaus when it seems obvious that it is Mary and Clopas. But yes, the gospel packages subversive truth in interesting ways.

  6. April 28, 2010

    Julie, this is something near and dear to my heart. As someone who has been an outsider in many ways for most of my life (and yet I enjoy privilege at least as much as the next straight white male), sci-fi and fantasy affirmed some crucial values for me.

    (1) The things that we think divide us are actually strengths: race (both ethnicity and you know, dwarves and elves and Vulcans), gender, ideology, etc.

    (2) Being on the margins gives you access to truth and compassion which are both indispensible and, from the center, inaccessible.

    Both of these have powerful implications for countering the dominant narratives in our society. Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek when his drama about the Vietnam War “The Lieutenant” bit the dust. He realized he couldn’t tell the stories he wanted to unless he packaged them as something other than reality, so that they could *shape* reality. Isn’t that how truth gets into our system? I couldn’t shake Roddenberry, Tolkien, and the rest out of my theology if I wanted to…which I don’t. And at the end of the day, Scripture too plots an alternative narrative. The layers of storytelling that happen in the gospels are not, I think, an accident.

    My almost-3-year-old Ellie already walks around the house when we “play Star Trek” proudly proclaiming “I’m Uhura!” I look forward to her reading about Hermione Granger and Arwen Evenstar (or Eowyn: I love the quote at the head of your blog, btw), and watching Zoe and the others from Firefly. If only there were more subversive models I could allow her to stumble across, to counterbalance the Disney princess / Barbie ones that are inescapable. I think the fact that we have such “minority reports” in our society is something to celebrate–that may be the only place they can authentically shape our souls.

  7. Mick Bradley permalink
    April 28, 2010

    I just remembered this from fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Seems apropos:

    “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.”

  8. April 28, 2010


    I really appreciate your wisdom. It’s insightful (and rightfully condemning) to name and point out how we have only been able to generate safe space for powerful women/minority figures in fantasy. And though I do agree that there is power in story, and it can be and has been and will be used to subvert the story of racism/sexism, nevertheless it’s good- and critical, even- to name the truth. Doing so makes us realize how these dominant stories keep the “other” from being heard.

    I think of how I’m trying to teach my children to see commercials for what they are and to be able to recognize the story the commercial is trying to tell them and to decide whether or not they want to listen. I can’t stop the commercials, but I can make sure my kids see them a certain way and engage them critically. If anything, just knowing that our society has to create fantasy worlds before we are able to listen to an “outsider” can change the way we interact with the dominant story.

    On a lighter note, as a half-Lebanese person, I’ll say we should never underestimate the power of food, even if it is an “easy entry point.” I’m pretty sure many a person has been changed at my grandmother’s table through her homemade labneh. :)

  9. Daniel Fan permalink
    April 29, 2010


    Your concept of “Safe Packaging” actually correlates to the phenomenon of white-as-normal -and-default and reminded me that Soong Chan Rah’s comparisons between “normal theology” (systematic/white) vs “women’s liberation, ” “black theology,” or multiple othered theologies can also be applied in a broader sense to society in general and film specifically.

    When characters are written in screenplays, they usually appear in the most general terms possible when it comes to race/ethnicity. There’s a couple reasons for this (for one: it’s easier to cast a white person than a minority, just in terms of available “talent.”).

    But the most insidious reason is that every detail (setup) that appears in screenplay requires a payoff. If you specify that there is a blender on the counter in a scene, that blender is there because a character is somehow going to interact with it or refer to it. If you specify that the car in the background is painted black, you’re doing so because that color has some significance later (triggers a flashback, makes harder to see at night, etc).

    Unfortunately, this lends itself to ethnicity too. If a casting director is going to go to the trouble of hunting down a tall, attractive Asian male who can act, there better be a payoff for it. Does he have lines in foreign dialog? Are there slant-eye jokes in the screenplay? Does the scene require math or martial arts? Maybe his romantic opposite have a scripted Asian fetish? If not, why bother with that character being Asian at all? There’s no reason for it. Just caste that character as white and make life easier on the production staff.

    That’s the white default at work. For a long time, minority parts had to be justified in some way. Voluntary affirmative action within the film and TV industry helped with that to some degree, with sci-fi, as a genre, leading the way. But voluntary is just that. African Americans wondered why the New York of Friends had no black people in it. Probably because there was no payoff for having an African American on the show when white actors could deliver the same lines and were more palatable to a greater percentage of the show’s potential viewership.

    The news isn’t all bad. “Up” featured an Asian boyscout, voiced by Jordan Nagai, who could easily have been white. It usually takes a big name to step outside the rules (example: casting Denzel Washington as Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”–a bold move for a period piece), but rarely, it happens.

    We’ll know the field is level when ethnic actors can compete for the same roles as white actors, in traditionally white dominated genres, without having to lean on ethnic kitch or stereotypes to clinch those parts. We’ll know the industry machinery has changed fundamentally when films featuring non-white leads aren’t billed as ethnic films. Finally, we as an audience have to expand our definition of what is “normal” and make demands accordingly. When large numbers of white people will pay full admission to watch two ethnic minority leads go at it in a domestically-set romantic comedy, that will be saying something, to the actors, to the studios, and to ourselves. Until then, “safe packaging” will not only be the easiest default for the entertainment industry to take, but also the most profitable.

  10. Sharon Tan permalink
    April 29, 2010

    It is demeaning and essentializing to say that women or minorities can only have a voice in the most trivial of ways or in futuristic or fantasy realms.
    — Actually, women and “minorities” are the majority of the world. They have a voice, it is just not heard (by whites, men, and other women).

    can we even say the subaltern has a voice if it only appears within these sorts of safe packaging? Is that a real voice?
    — Is it a “voice, a real voice” only if it is heard by whites?

    Should this habit be undermined, or is it the best we have to work with at the moment?We are afraid to really encounter another culture because we are afraid that doing so will change the way we see things.
    — Yes, that is the crux. But if women and non-whites are the majority of the world (and BTW, the majority of Christianity), then to ignore/subjugate/colonize them or other cultures is to live a lie about what is truly Christian. That doesn’t only hurt the women and minorities, it hurts the white majority.

    Thanks for letting me post.

  11. April 30, 2010

    Julie – Great Post! I cringe every time I have to click a gender choice. The hairs on the back of my neck bristle and I feel my back arching like a cat whenever I am faced with “race” or “ethnicity” choices. I am a tenth generation American. I bristle not so much for myself but for my grand nieces and nephews who are asked to choose black versus white — to choose to align with their mother or their father. It should not be this way. There is no eternal reason for it. Two thousand years ago we were supposed to no longer see Jew versus Gentile, male versus female. It really pisses me off but I have no clue what to do about it. All I can do is trust that God will hear my groaning and lead me where He wants me to go.

  12. May 1, 2010

    As I was reading this post, I kept thinking of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s article “Can the Subaltern Speak?”in which she discusses the top down model of giving voice to the other. The other needs the West in order for the other to gain entrance into the public sphere; thus, giving agency to the other. But the other in this model only parrots Western conceptions of voice/agency. Essentially, the other has no voice even after the West, supposedly, saves the other from itself. Perhaps, we need to reframe our conceptions of agency and voice. How do we distinguish between a Western conception of voice/agency and non-Western?

    As far as packaging the other in fantasy, I am torn on this one. First, it continues to marginalized the always already marginal voice of the other. Secondly, it reinscribes the normative power that novels(bildungsroman) had to reform those readers into good citizens for empire. Here is where I must contradict myself–even in fantasy, the representation of the other has the potential for subverting patriarchy. I think that fantasy critiques Western/patriarchy that is more appealing to more readers; thus, the other could influence/subvert the structures that are silencing the other. Again, I think that safe-packaging of the voice of the other is not true agency, but a new form of subjugation.

  13. cyborgninja permalink
    May 2, 2010

    As a PoC who just got done with a steampunk project with all PoC, let me add this.

    I am a fantasy/ slight sci-fi junkie with a feminist slant. Most of my life I wondered “Where are people who look like me in these cultures?”

    There was Uhura, Misty Knight, Storm and not much else. And they were stereotyped and pigeon-holed. So I wrote up my project, where I kept reality as it was in the past, and still inserted fantasy and science fiction. These PoC were still doing things — the non-realistic elements were just the catalyst. For example, the inventors were inventors before the fantasy elements were introduced, they fought racism before they were introduced, they questioned colonialism and assimilation and so much more…

    I disagree with your opinion of fantasy being the place where minorities are cast off to do things they “shouldn’t” do in real life. Why? Personally, the character of Zoe in Firefly inspires me to kick ass and take names here in real life. Fantasy and sci-fi, at least nowadays, have healthy doses of reality in them. They make me think. As much as I can rattle off many black women who are heroines to the max, I always wanted realistic representation in the most fantastical of worlds. Where I won’t look in the mirror and ask why I’m not like Lara Croft or Samus or Zelda. Where I could choose to be more than the Yellow Ranger. Where the character won’t just look like me, but would have depth to her.

    I wrote my project for my little sisters — little geekettes who will see my story and say, “I want to be her! And her! And her!”

  14. Kemi permalink
    May 9, 2010

    Thank you for writing the above. I’ve often thought along similar lines without being able to put it as eloquently and succinctly. I remember watching the season of 24 where Dennis Haysbert plays the noble and ethical President Palmer and commenting repeatedly to my husband, “This is what’s finally going open America up to having a black president.” Of course, they had to demonize his wife but it was a start.

    Makes me wonder how this last season of 24 with a female president will affect our cultural subconscious. She doesn’t seem to be finishing well. Then again during the democratic primary I was sure Obama would beat out Clinton as I feel America is more deeply sexist that racist (but only slightly).

  15. December 10, 2015

    Hi Dash, thanks a lot for your fadebeck.1. You can import products from CSV (see ) but unfortunately there is no way to export CSV from the app. This feature is planned.2. Adding photos to items is planned too. Unfortunately, no timeline yet.Please let me know if you have any further questions or comments.

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