Can You See Color in Space?
The Expanse and the future of bigotry.
I’ve just about finished the second season of the Expanse. It’s an entertaining hard science adventure romp set in a nearish future in which humans have colonized the solar system. There’s engaging world building and a solid cold war metaphor: Mars has set itself up as a rival power to Earth, and both try to control the asteroid belt which transports and harvests valuables, especially water/ice and air.
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Like I said, I’m enjoying the series. But—especially in the first season—it has a fairly typical, and irritating television SF dynamic when it comes to bigotry. The world includes discrimination and prejudice, but that discrimination and prejudice carefully do not align with present day ills like racism, sexism, and homophobia. The Expanse is a post-racial, post-sexist dystopia—or, in other words, a dystopia which is less dystopic than our present, and which, in many respects, deliberately avoids dealing with the dystopic aspects of that present.
The Expanse in its first season includes a lot of what we generally refer to as diversity. Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) a ruthless Earth diplomat high up in the UN hierarchy, is a South Asian woman; Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), a hyper-competent engineer on a Belt harvest ship, is Black. Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), an idealistic rich girl turned Belt rebel, is East Asian. They’re all interesting, engaging characters—and none of them face overt, or even subtle, racial prejudice on the show. Employment discrimination on the basis of gender also doesn’t come up (though there are hints of sexist harassment and gender stereotyping, still.)
The real force of bigotry in The Expanse, though, falls on the Belters. Caught between Mars and Earth, they are racially distinct not by virtue of skin color, but because life in zero G has made their skeletons and muscles weaker. Chrisjen even tortures one Belter smuggler by the simple expedient of chaining him upright in Earth gravity. Belters are harassed by Mars and human security forces; they work in crap jobs for little pay; they’re forced to undergo dangerous medical experiments without consent. They’re a colonized, brutalized and marginalized people.
Many of the Belters (like Naomi Nagata and Julie Mao) are also people of color. But many aren’t. And in fact that two main characters of the first season, detective-with-heart-of-gold Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) and whiny ice-harvester James Holden (Steven Strait) are white men. Miller’s a Belter by birth and Holden’s one by choice since he left Earth. They’re scrappy, discriminated against, marginalized white guy underdogs.
Miller and Holden aren’t discriminated against because they’re white. But the series still reproduces reverse colonization tropes and dynamics in which the colonized becomes the colonizer and vice versa.
In theory, if you are white, seeing white people in the position of the oppressed could lead you to identify with oppressed people. But it could also just firm up a sense of white grievance and anger. Reactionaries love to hate the UN and women of color, both of whom are presented (again, especially in the first season) as oppressors.
The dynamic of the first season is that the main targets of discrimination we identify in the world of The Expanse are people who don’t face prejudice in ours. The Expanse could plausibly read as a kind of utopia; they’ve eliminated racism! Instead it reads as a dystopia in part because from our current (racist) pop culture perspective, the wrong people (ie white people) are on the wrong end of the boot.
So, how could the Expanse avoid this kind of reverse colonial reactionary black hole? It would help if the main characters weren’t both white guys—and the series does get better about that. Miller is killed off early in season 2, and he’s replaced with Gunny, a Martian Marine played by Frankie Adams, a more interesting actor and character all around.
Moving away from white guys as central characters is welcome. It would be nice, though, if the Expanse were also less cowardly about confronting bigotry. Demanding equality for the Belters is easy, because there are no Belters; prejudice against them isn’t real, so you aren’t challenging your viewers at all when you tell them it’s wrong. On the other hand, if the show suggested that our racial hierarchies are still active in the future—if the Belters were more likely to be Black than powerful people on Earth, or if anti-Black racism remained a live issue alongside with or intertwined with anti-Belter prejudice—well, then the show would be directly addressing current oppression. And yes, some people wouldn’t like that. But it would be a more honest show, and therefore a more powerful one.
There’s some precedent for a more forthright approach to bigotry in television SF. Star Trek’s DS9 had a number of episodes that directly addressed racist prejudice. The superhero series The Boys includes queer, POC, women and/or disabled characters who are discriminated against, and sometimes killed—and who sometimes oppose injustice and fascism—because they are queer, POC, women and/or disabled.
The Expanse, though, is overall more typical. The bulk of franchise SF like Star Wars and Star Trek avoid discussing present day political inequities directly, and instead try to finesse them through more or less pointed analogies (Belters! Mutants!) and (somewhat) race-blind casting. That’s why so many of our rip-roaring futures feel so timid.