Science Fiction Studies

#139 = Volume 46, Part 3 = November 2019


Isiah Lavender III

Dat Black Girl Magic!

Diana Adesola Mafe. Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV. Austin: U of Texas P, 2018. ix+173 pp. $27.95 pbk.

Sami Schalk. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2018. vii+180 pp. $89.95 hc, $23.95 pbk.

The ongoing colored wave of sf—perhaps now better thought of as alternative futurisms—continues to gain influence in literature, film, television, comics, and online media. The 2018 Hugo Awards serve as incontrovertible proof of this claim (as do the 2018 Nebula Awards): N.K. Jemisin won for best novel, Rebecca Roanhorse won for best short story, and Marjorie M. Liu (writer) and Sana Takeda (illustrator) won for the best graphic story. While she did not win a Hugo, Nnedi Okorafor won the WorldCon award for best YA novel, and Roanhorse was also honored with the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. Additionally, at least eight other people of color were nominated for Hugo Awards across the categories: Yoon Ha Lee (twice), Nnedi Okorafor, JY Yang, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (twice), Aliette de Bodard, Caroline M. Yochim, Saladin Ahmed, and Jordan Peele. Scholarship has followed, even if a bit belatedly. At least thirteen monographs focused on representations of race and ethnicity in speculative literatures have been published since 2010, in addition to seven edited collections. In keeping with the Black Girl Magic social movement started by CaShawn Thompson’s hashtag in 2013,1 referenced in my title, this review considers two black-authored studies of race and racism in sf: Diana Adesola Mafe’s Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV and Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction.

Diana Adesola Mafe makes a solid contribution to this expanding field by exploring depictions of black femininity on both big and small screens, in what is the first published study on this subject. Writing in an accessible style, Mafe begins her study with Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) of the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) as her model, and she concludes the book with further analysis of Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot (2009) and its sequels.2 Noting how black actresses in speculative-fiction roles usually reinforce white patriarchal authority and tend to be eroticized like the character Lisa (Rosalind Cash) in Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971), Mafe demonstrates how such portrayals establish and cement stereotypes of black women in genre films throughout the late twentieth century and into the new millennium. Mafe suggests that such stereotypes make black women largely invisible to the critical eye, functionally erasing black womanhood from sf for roughly forty years while continuing to promulgate social prejudices.

In this book, however, Mafe centers on black femininity in her discussion of recent American and British film and television, arguing for their significance in reimagining social constructions and agency by drawing on critical race, film, postcolonial, and gender theories. She examines subversive black female characters from the twenty-first century in four films—28 Days Later (2002), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)—and two television series—Firefly (2002) and the third series of Doctor Who (2007)—all directed by white men. Five chapters and a coda follow her introduction. She splits her case studies evenly, providing close readings of three British and three American offerings, without claiming to be undertaking an exhaustive survey. Her readings proceed in chronological order of release dates.

Mafe’s introduction, “To Boldly Go,” lays out the premise of her book: to examine representative black female characters in sf to correct their omission from visual culture. Smartly recognizing Uhura as “the symbolic face of black women in science fiction,” Mafe taps into the seemingly limitless possibilities of raced/gendered representation in sf to destabilize the stereotypes of black femininity (1). By considering the black female characters in the main casts in each of her case studies, Mafe seeks to demonstrate in them an agency that goes beyond their roles and the limitations of gender and race. Likewise, Mafe identifies and interrogates “patterns of representation” for black femininity in outmoded stereotypes and she considers the implications of new twenty-first century examples that offer something fresh through sf (5). She uses the work of bell hooks, Laura Mulvey, Donald Bogle, Stuart Hall, and Ann Kaplan, among many others, as her philosophical touchstones to create a trifocal raced, feminist, postcolonial lens through which to question the construction of her chosen heroines by looking at the “increasingly dated examples of speculative black female characters from the twentieth century” (13).

In her first chapter, “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: 28 Days Later,” Mafe concentrates on British director Danny Boyle’s well-received and profitable pandemic zombie film, which boasts an interracial cast. Mafe examines the character of Selena (Naomie Harris), a tough black survivor who rescues the white male protagonist Jim (Cillian Murphy), who has no idea what is going on in London. Mafe asserts that a role reversal occurs in the film: Mafe positions Selena as an empowered black woman who butchers zombies and enemies alike as she leads a small group of survivors and Jim as the symbolic male-projected “final girl”—to borrow Carol J. Clover’s critical term from Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992)—largely a passive victim (108). In horror sf, Selena’s heroism disrupts the status quo of white patriarchal power both in the film and in the cinematic gaze of white men, as she makes her own survival choices.

American director Paul W.S. Anderson uses the face-off gimmick implied by the film’s title to reference two iconic sf horror film franchises. She addresses the strength of the black female protagonist, Lex (Sanaa Lathan), in being the lone survivor of a fight between alien species that takes place in Antarctica where a crack research team attempts to investigate a recently discovered ancient pyramid buried beneath the ice. As the protagonist, Lex defies stereotypes of black women “as savage, primeval, hyperfertile, maternal, and, of course, monstrous” because of her expertise as an environmental guide (48). Her battles with the aliens and predators complicate her difference in placing her black femininity alongside the creatures. Lex’s mere presence as the film’s black and female protagonist implodes accepted sf paradigms of white heroism.

The third chapter, “The Black Madonna: Children of Men,” considers Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian British film, in which humanity faces extinction because of long-term mass sterility; the only exception is a solitary pregnant African refugee named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). As “a hyperbolic signifier,” Kee represents a host of stereotypes—Eve, primitive, hyper-fecund black woman, virgin mother, etc. (Mafe 15). Though Kee does not have many lines in the film, Mafe argues that the character deconstructs imperial concepts such as the white man’s burden, the dark continent, and power. Mafe depends on the postcolonial scholarship of E. Ann Kaplan and Anne McClintock to depict how Kee resists fetishization as a political pawn for the radical immigrants’ rights group known as the Fishes at important moments, even as a white man named Theo (Clive Owen) helps her escape to “the Human Project,” a scientific research group studying the infertility problem.

In the fourth chapter, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls: Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Mafe begins the process of mapping a new model of young black girls as the subject of speculative cinema in Benh Zeitlin’s film. Mafe analyzes the indomitable spirit, fierceness, freedom, and vulnerability of the black child protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in an isolated, impoverished Louisiana bayou known as the Bathtub. Mafe opposes bell hooks’s excoriating review of the film, where hooks takes the film to task for projecting stereotypes about black girlhood. Mafe instead suggests that Hushpuppy represents the individuality at the heart of the film. Although Hushpuppy represents the marginalized in terms of race and gender in rural Louisiana, her character resists the patriarchal gaze of her father Wink (Dwight Henry). Mafe closely analyzes the ethnographic spectacle that the film creates with Zeitlin’s documentary-style camerawork as Hushpuppy goes in search of her mother after surviving a hurricane, a dying but controlling father, and encounters with a prehistoric aurochs.

In the fifth chapter, “Intergalactic Companions: Firefly and Doctor Who,” Mafe divides her analysis between these cult classic tv shows by examining a primary black female character in each series: Zoë Washburne (Gina Torres) in Joss Whedon’s ill-fated space western and Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) in the 2007 season of the long-running interplanetary time-travel series. These characters are more or less secondary to the white-male lead characters, but both of them are more than sidekicks by the end of their respective shows. For Mafe, these black female characters disrupt white patriarchal control. As a former Browncoat officer turned smuggler, Firefly’s Zoë resists easy classification because of her marriage to pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk) and because of her position as the outlaw second to her captain Mal (Nathan Fillion) on board their spaceship Serenity. Martha Jones, a medical doctor, forms an effective partnership with the doctor (David Tennant) and creates her own identity that makes her strong enough to walk away from him at the end. Both of these characters are “figurative descendants of Uhura who have had an identifiable impact on the twenty-first century” (Mafe 123). Mafe uses her coda, “Final Frontiers,” to review the black female characters of her case studies from roughly the first decade of the twenty-first century, hoping to encourage her readers regarding the depictions of black femininity in film and tv science fiction. Mafe also returns to the figure of Uhura, now played by Saldana in Abrams’s reboot, but sees this character as a regression since Uhura is essentially given nothing to do in any of his three Star Trek films.

I believe Mafe’s Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before makes a genuine contribution as a pioneering effort in the study of race and gender in sf film and television. I would place it next to Adilifu Nama’s Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film (2008) on my bookshelf because of its strong focus on black femininity and gender and how it expands on the tokenism explored in Nama’s book. Mafe identifies a gap in the study of sf and begins to fill it with her analysis. For example, she offers a fascinating phallic reading of the predator guns discovered in a sarcophagus in the under-ice pyramid where Lex steps away from her fawning male companions in AVP. But she also claims that both the predators and aliens can be interpreted as manifestations of Barbara Creed’s “monstrous feminine,” because the predator spares Lex and allies itself with her in the pursuit of the alien queen. This brief reading feels a bit off because it takes the focus off Lex, her heroism, and desire to live as she becomes the hunter. A few pages later Mafe writes, “But if the Queen and the Predator are racist and patriarchal constructs, then their deaths at the hands of and in the service of a black female hero are provocative” (64). I agree to some extent, but how can the creatures represent the monstrous feminine and patriarchy simultaneously? Fleeting moments like this one pop up in each chapter, such as Mafe’s inverse reading of Jim as the “final girl” in 28 Days Later; in fact, he does most of the killing at the end of the film. While I like Mafe’s reading of Beasts of the Southern Wild, I am not sold on the film as a speculative work and it seems an odd choice for inclusion. Also, in a book ostensibly about black female characters, Mafe spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the male characters and male archetypes in each of her chosen visual texts.

Of course, there are brilliant moments too. For instance, Mafe calls out Cuarón for snubbing the entire African continent in Children of Men despite making a young black woman from Africa the “key” to humanity’s ongoing existence. Likewise, Mafe demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the “interracial and heterosexual buddy pairing involving a black woman and a white man” in an American space-opera such as Firefly (127). The same might be said for Doctor Who. Further, Mafe notes how “Martha does not take on her doctor identity by association with the Doctor but exists as one independently of him” (137). This fact always seems to get buried in the show and powerfully reemerges when Martha quits travelling with him in the TARDIS. Finally, Mafe offers a compelling if short reading of the new Uhura as a step in the wrong direction.

Regardless of my assessment of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, Mafe’s book should do well. It is readable, thoughtful, and challenging. Research libraries will snap it up quickly as should any sf scholars who study the nexus of race and gender. It can reach a broad academic audience, but the book is clearly intended for film classrooms focused on representations of black women. And that is a good thing.

Sami Schalk astutely interweaves race, gender, and (dis)ability as these complicated identity markers are portrayed in black women’s speculative fiction in Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Literature. Schalk very successfully brings together disability studies, particularly crip theory,3 and black feminist theory, in specific intersectionality4 with speculative literature written by black women,  and she convincingly maps out how the mental and the physical—inseparable bodyminds—exceed the limits of social reality with representations of oppression in nonrealist texts. She analyzes (dis)ability in works by Octavia E. Butler, Phyllis Alesia Perry, N.K. Jemisin, Shawntelle Madison, and Nalo Hopkinson, and she destabilizes social categories defining human identity. Schalk reveals how ideas about able-minds and able-bodies are also social constructions maintained by racial and gendered norms, at the same time indicating how these authors and their works create new social possibilities. An introduction, four chapters, conclusion, notes, bibliography, and index comprise this truly groundbreaking book.

In her untitled introduction, Schalk does a brave thing. She confesses to initially disliking sf, thus hooking her audience, before acknowledging how her first experience of reading Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) changed her mind. With that said, Schalk relates how she came to understand how reading and imagining (dis)ability differently from societal norms might change how we think of marginalized people—that representation absolutely makes a difference. Schalk then explains the two key terms of her text, “bodymind” and “(dis)ability,” and their importance to her study of black women’s speculative fiction. Anchored in the black feminist theorizing of Barbara Christian, Schalk finds the language to analyze categories of difference. Schalk borrows “bodymind,” Margaret Price’s feminist disability concept, because it “insists on the inextricability of mind and body and highlights how processes within our being impact one another” (5).5 In regard to (dis)ability, Schalk uses the term “to reference the overarching social system of bodily and mental norms that include ability and disability” and finds the parentheses a good visual reminder of “the shifting, contentious, and contextual boundaries between disability and ability” (6). Our realist understanding of disability does not necessarily align with its presentation in speculative literature where multiple identities, privileges, and oppressions abound, making interlocking oppressions a key crossroad for grasping difference and social construction. Schalk then demonstrates the potency of the bodymind as an analytical tool by offering a close but cogent reading of Colm McCarthy’s British postapocalyptic zombie film The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), in which a young black girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua) symbolizes the intersections of race, gender, and disease figured as disability. Schalk’s careful and detailed explanation of key terms and theories borrowed from black feminist theory and disability studies lays the groundwork for an exciting study.  

In chapter 1, “Metaphor and Materiality: Disability and Neo-Slave Narratives,” Schalk examines sf representations of disability in neo-slave narratives to expand how we understand the long-lasting impacts of racial violence and the trauma it has caused. Schalk uses Butler’s time-traveling story Kindred (1979) to illustrate her thinking about the material conditions of slavery that cause the black female protagonist Dana Franklin to lose her arm to the antebellum past and how this haunts her in her twentieth-century present. Chapter 2, “Whose Reality Is It Anyway? Deconstructing Able-Mindedness,” continues Schalk’s examination of neo-slave narratives by offering a critique of able-mindedness and its social construction in Perry’s novel  Stigmata (1998). Lizzie, the black female protagonist, gets locked away in a mental institution for fourteen years because her experience of reality seems disabling. Lizzie manifests multiple consciousnesses—her enslaved ancestors Grace and Ayo share their memories and the wounds that mark her body—but nobody believes her and she is institutionalized.

In chapter 3, “The Future of Bodyminds, Bodyminds of the Future,” Schalk shifts focus to diverse bodyminds in imagined future worlds grounded by realist oppressions; she concentrates on Butler’s fictional disability,  “hyperempathy syndrome,” in Parable of the Sower (1993). Schalk reads this disability within the rules of Butler’s world to demonstrate how Lauren Olamina navigates the social contexts of sharing pain and pleasure and how this informs her experiences as a raced, gendered, and disabled person. With chapter 4, “Defamiliarizing (Dis)ability, Race, Gender, and Sexuality,” Schalk tackles nonhuman disabled characters in the fantasy settings of N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms (2010), the Coveted series of werewolf novels by Shawntelle Madison (2012-), and Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine (2013). Blindness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and formerly conjoined twins are the disabilities of the nonhuman characters in these novels. By defamiliarizing notions of disability, these texts also comment on race, gender, and sexuality to challenge the supposedly permanent and predictable nature of these ailments. New meanings are given to these disabilities through the nonhuman characters—demon, werewolf, and demi-god. In her untitled conclusion, Schalk productively reflects on her combining of black feminist theories with disability studies to analyze black women’s speculative literature; her aim is to “better trace and understand the mutually constitutive nature of these categories as identities, experiences, systems of privilege and oppression, and historical constructs” (137).

Bodyminds Reimagined encouraged me to check my own privilege, to think differently about identity, and to reimagine my small niche in the world. The book is that good in its confrontation of the status quo, in its analysis of marginalized peoples in estranged worlds. With respect to Kindred, Schalk persuasively argues that “a traditional slave narrative could not … fully detail the violence of slavery, which disabled so many people without jeopardizing its pragmatic purpose” (38). Disability structures Kindred in many ways for Schalk in that “Dana’s moves through time are impelled by the threat of disability, the involuntary experience of these moves is disabling, and her place as a black woman in the antebellum past puts her at additional risk for disablement” (53). Indeed, Schalk emphasizes that when we first meet Dana she is disabled and that when the story ends Dana is also disabled. Involuntary time travel may have harmed Dana, caused her to lose an arm, but it is her inability to find historical evidence of her experience in slavery that haunts her, not her living as an ordinary one-armed black woman. In regard to the fantasy novels by Jemisin, Madison, and Hopkinson that Schalk later critiques, she reveals how “defamiliarization of (dis)ability discourages readers from applying their realist assumptions and prejudices to these representations as they might, for example, to a memoir of chronic pain”—such as black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (1980), as powerful as it is (127). These black women authors disrupt oppressive categories of identity by challenging their readers to think about intersectional social constructions and their stereotypes. As Schalk says, “There can be pleasure within representations of oppression because there is joy in seeing oneself represented, after so much denial” (144).

As fine a book as I think Bodyminds Reimagined is, there are some flaws. The fourth chapter on Jemisin, Madison, and Hopkinson seems a bit rushed in that none of their works receive the amount of attention that Schalk gives to Butler’s works. In other words, each of these authors deserves a chapter dedicated to analysis of her works alone. Schalk’s book should be longer in that respect. For me, a real weakness occurs with Schalk’s insistence on technology as ambivalent in Parable of the Sower. She identifies technology as a major part of the novel in terms of how hyperempathy is portrayed, refers to Sherryl Vint’s Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction (2007), but does not devote enough time to teasing out her claim by engaging deeply with the substantial existing scholarship on Butler’s novel.

When I refer to Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined as groundbreaking, I do not mean this lightly. I learned a great deal about (dis)ability studies and how this field intersects with critical race studies, feminist theories, and sf. Schalk redefines how we use (dis)ability and intersectionality to interrogate identity in speculative literatures. Her short exploration of the zombie film The Girl with All the Gifts in the introduction suggests that a follow-up study focused on speculative film should follow. All libraries should stock this book on their shelves. The audience should be large and includes scholars of science fiction, fantasy, race, gender, sexuality, feminism, queer studies, and crip theory. This book could be an anchoring secondary source in multiple post-secondary classrooms from freshman year to graduate seminars.

These two very different books share three common threads: they are written by black women, they concern representations of black female characters in speculative visions in print and in film, and they signal excellent scholarship in expanding fields. This is proof positive of black girl magic in academia as these black scholars counteract negative images of black women with positive interpretations of the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and disability.

1. See Dexter Thomas’s “Why Everyone’s Saying ‘Black Girls Are Magic’,” which considers how Thompson’s term offers positive images of black women in popular culture.

2. See J.J. Abram’s Star Trek into Darkness (2013) and Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond (2016).

3. See Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory; he cements disability as a social identity category in order to reclaim power from the disparaging term “cripple.” 

4. See Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” which outlines how interlocking oppressions such as race, gender, sex, and disability should be examined together in discussions of diversity.

5. See, for example, Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.”

Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-67.

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1980.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York UP, 2006.

Nama, Adilifu. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 2008.

Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 268-84.

Thomas, Dexter. “Why Everyone’s Saying ‘Black Girls Are Magic.’” Los Angeles Times. 9 Sep. 2015. Online.

Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.


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