A dark-skinned Klingon from star trek discovery

Star Trek: Discovery doubled-down on depicting dark-skinned Klingons. This was not a great idea.

At Mythcreants, we get many questions like “Can I avoid racial justice implications by using alien characters?” or “Is it okay to make my intelligent monster gender neutral?” To better answer questions like these, I’ll outline what you should know when making non-humans resemble marginalized people – or privileged people. For this post, I’ll assume the traits under discussion are typical in the non-human population, if not universal. I won’t cover characters that differ from most others in their non-human group.

But before I offer insight on what traits to give your groups, I need to cover a few basics.

Character Traits Aren’t Always Literal

You might wonder how aliens could possibly have marginalized characteristics, like being people of color. They’re aliens, aren’t they? Well… not really. Characters must have some human-like qualities to be relatable to human readers, so almost every character has human reasoning and a human-like personality. In movies and TV shows, non-human characters are usually played by human actors. And humans have a habit of anthropomorphizing everything they encounter, even inanimate objects. So regardless of whether characters are technically orcs or talking fungi, the audience will draw parallels to real humans groups.

Let me give you a couple examples.

What Human Races Do These Non-Humans Have?

a shot of Neytiri and Jake from Avatar, next to a shot of an orc in street clothes from the film Bright
The film Avatar (left) has a species of nature-loving aliens with braided hair, feathers, and beads. They are clearly inspired by Native Americans. In Bright (right), Orcs dress in garb associated with black people and embody stereotypes about black people.

What Human Genders Do These Non-Humans Have?

Piggy and Kermit from The Muppet Movie
In the Muppet franchise, Piggy is depicted with feminine hairstyles, makeup, and accessories. The absence of these features on Kermit mark him as masculine.

These depictions are usually referred to as “coding.” While a cartoon object or animal with a bow on its head is not explicitly a human woman, it’s definitely coded as one. Many storytellers who put in coding do not intend to make their characters a specific human group – at least not consciously so. But that doesn’t make the connection any less real to the audience.

Now let’s do a little exercise. In your head, picture a primitive tribe.

Now, what race did you first picture? Whatever it was, it’s pretty unlikely your tribe was composed of white people with blond hair and blue eyes. The idea of being primitive is a stereotype that has a long history of being applied to people of color, and especially to Indigenous and tribal peoples. Because of this association, just by putting a “primitive tribe” of non-humans in your story, you’ve created what’s probably a racist depiction. It’s not your fault that this association exists, but you can choose what to do about it.

While it’s easy to end up with coded depictions that are problematic, coding is not in itself bad. What’s important is that you understand the coding your characters have. If you are consciously aware that your male characters with nice clothes and high voices are coded as gay, then you’ll make smarter decisions about how to depict them.

Privileged Traits Are Applied by Default

Next you might think, “If I’m careful not to code my monsters, then they’ll fall outside any human identities, right?” Sorry, but no.

The overabundance of representation for privileged people has led us to subconsciously view privileged traits as default. Unless you code your non-humans as marginalized – or just state they are – then they’ll be viewed as privileged people. For example, if you have a character who is a doctor, the majority of people will assume that this doctor is a white man unless you specifically state that this doctor is something different, such as a black woman. This status of default assumptions is sometimes called “the unmarked state.” For practical purposes, an unmarked character is a white, youthful, monogamous, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical cis man. Any trait that deviates from this is a “marked” trait, because it has to be specified by the storyteller in some way.

To storytellers, it can feel like a lot of work to specify marked traits. But when our characters have few marked traits, we only perpetuate this problem. To change what’s viewed as default, we’ll have to do more than assign a marked trait to a few characters. For instance, let’s say you have five characters, and all five have one marked trait each: one is old, one is a woman, one is disabled, etc. Because their remaining traits would be unmarked, at least 80% of your characters would be youthful, at least 80% would be men, at least 80% would be able-bodied. Privileged traits would still be over-represented in your story.

The good news is that it’s possible to alter cultural defaults in the context of your work. You could make it clear that everyone on your spaceship is black and then describe a few white people as exceptions to that rule. However, you’ll be facing an uphill battle against cultural assumptions, so you may need to remind your audience periodically.

Please note: default assumptions don’t make alternate interpretations of characters invalid. For our purposes, if we don’t communicate what traits our characters have, we have made them white men – because we can predict that’s how most audience members will view them. But for a fan’s purposes, the canon for that character is unspecified. If they interpret a character as an Asian woman, that impression is as legitimate as the storyteller’s intent.

That said, let’s move on to examining the intersection of non-humans and marginalized traits. Because marginalized groups face unique kinds of oppression that operate differently, my recommendations will change somewhat depending on which marginalized group we’re talking about.

Non-Human Groups and Race

Tuvok head and shoulders shot
Tuvok from Voyager is both Vulcan and black.

First, some readers have wanted to know if they can write a character who’s racially neutral. Must every alien have a human race? I’ll say that if your characters look like octopuses and speak in clicks that require a translator, then, okay, they are racially neutral unless you apply some racial coding to them. So the aliens from Arrival shown below? I think they’re racially neutral. However, they’re also very alien – they were designed to be strange to viewers, not to be relatable. That’s not what you’ll want for most characters.

Strange Octopus-like aliens from Arrival

It’s also important to understand that avoiding race is a common tactic used by white people, so they don’t have to address racial grievances or take responsibility for writing race respectfully. That doesn’t mean it’s never okay to depict racially neutral characters, but it does mean that if you find the issue of race intimidating, you should look extra hard at any supposedly race-neutral depictions you have. Pretending race doesn’t exist will not erase racial bias; it will only allow bias to flourish unchecked.

Since being white is an unmarked trait unless you give your non-human characters racial coding, you should consider them white people. Often, that’s actually for the best. People of color are frequently dehumanized to justify violence against them. If your aliens have brown skin, you aren’t just depicting your non-humans as people of color; you’re depicting people of color as inhuman. That’s why you have to be especially careful about racial coding when depicting non-human groups.

You definitely don’t want any type of primitive, violent, or barbarian race to be coded as people of color. In fact, we generally recommend against any depiction of human-like groups that are inferior in some way. If you have a race that’s less advanced technologically, don’t label them as “primitive.” The idea of human-like people who are inherently evil or unintelligent is in itself problematic. But if you’re going to make a race that’s bad anyway, strongly coding them as white people will help to counterbalance the continued association between these groups and people of color.

For highly “civilized” or technologically advanced non-humans, however, it’s beneficial to include people of color among the population. Otherwise, you have one more depiction associating white people with being “advanced” and “civilized.” A good example is the Vulcans in Star Trek. Some are black and some white, but they are always Vulcan. Remember that every group will have diversity, including elves and Martians. It’s not unrealistic to give them a variety of skin colors or other characteristics.

If they encounter humans, remember to do the same for your human population. Nothing humanizes people of color like depicting humans who are people of color.

Non-Human Groups and Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

A woman hugs a man, saying I'm Jadzia now.
In Deep Space Nine, Jadzia re-introduces herself to old friends who know her as a man named Curzon.

For our purposes, I’m grouping together a whole plethora of different marginalized traits related to gender expression and identity, sex, sexual orientation, and relationship styles. While these groups are often dehumanized, a bigger obstacle for them is being erased. Our depictions constantly show cis people adhering to traditional gender roles and conventional relationship styles, even when it’s unrealistic. Any kind of natural variation or diversity is simply absent. This erasure is almost always extended to non-humans.

So giving non-humans marked traits in this category is in itself fighting back against erasure. When we depict relatable characters who have these traits, we make it more conceivable that humans have them too.

However, that doesn’t mean giving non-humans these traits doesn’t take any thought. First, you have to be clear about their characteristics, or your characters will still be interpreted as privileged. Unfortunately, even if you state a character is of nonbinary gender, that character will often be imagined as a man or woman. To some extent, this is not something you can control. However, do not encourage it. Don’t code single-gendered non-humans as being all men or all women, and don’t use gendered pronouns for characters who are genderless. Use gender neutral pronouns, or if you aren’t ready for that, don’t use any pronouns for nonbinary characters.

Second, dehumanization can still be an issue if you are careless with your depiction. Remember that many humans also have these characteristics. Don’t let human characters treat marginalized traits as strange or scary. No one should say, “Wow, you form romantic relationships with a whole flock? We humans are monogamous.” To be safe, it’s helpful to have a human character with the same marked trait as your non-human group.

To stay respectful, don’t juice marginalized traits for all the novelty they can offer. A character who changes gender would naturally be interesting, but don’t use gender stereotypes to emphasize the contrast between them as a man and them as a woman. If the character screams whenever she’s a woman and yells whenever he’s a man, you’ll not only insult both women and men but also make the character a laughingstock.

Speaking of which, never use these traits for humor. These characters can be funny, but their gender, body, or sexuality itself should not be funny.

Non-Human Groups and Disability

A woman in a wheelchair wearing a star fleet uniform
In Deep Space Nine, Melora comes from a low-gravity world. She requires assistive technology to visit a space station with Earth-level gravity.

While erasure and dehumanization are concerns for disabled people, one of their top obstacles is the way they are belittled and devalued. Storytellers perpetuate this by frequently portraying disability in an exaggerated, negative way. By doing so, we stereotype disabled people as pitiable, helpless, or bitter. Luckily, the natural variation in ability between non-human groups can be a great way to offer representation for disabled people that counters these negative stereotypes and changes how we view disability.

To understand disability, it’s important to know that many of the obstacles disabled people experience are created by society. For example, some buildings are designed without any way to access them by wheelchair, and people who use wheelchairs are regularly talked down to by the people they interact with. This doesn’t mean disabled people never experience a condition they have as a limitation, just that focusing on the way society creates limitations for disabled people can help us move away from negative stereotypes. Depicting a world full of non-humans with different abilities is a great way to explore this social understanding of disability.

The key is to treat differences as neutral in value rather than judging whether everyone meets some theoretical standard of perfection. Perhaps you have an alien species that inhales gasses that are poisonous to humans. They have the advantage on their home planet, but on a human ship that wasn’t designed for them, they need an assistive device to breathe. Don’t be afraid to recast humans as disabled in the same manner. Maybe the eight hours of sleep humans need is an unusual limitation. None of the alien spaceships or spaceports humans visit have a place suitable for sleep, so human travelers must ask for special accommodations wherever they go.

Notice in both of these examples that the group needs an accommodation not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they weren’t considered when facilities were designed.

Neurodiversity can also be represented this way. Perhaps your elves are used to a great deal of motion and interactivity while they work; the human expectation that they remain still during a meeting and just listen for a while doesn’t work for them. On the other hand, most humans assigned to assist an elven team become disoriented by the way the elves make decisions through a dozen separate conversations. The human must explain to the elves that they aren’t able to keep track of what’s happening, and they need a single person to update them.

Again, don’t frame any characteristics coded as disabled or neurodivergent as weird or otherworldly. They should be a normal part of the diversity of the setting. And if your non-human group has something reminiscent of a specific human trait like ADHD, also featuring a human character with ADHD will help counter dehumanization.

Depiction of marginalized groups, whether literal or coded, should always strive to counter stereotypes. That means we can’t treat all groups as though they’re the same. Our culture doesn’t treat them equally, and if we want that to change, we have to correct our course.

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