Monsters in the Media

Monsters in the Media


J. Hughes


Posted: Dec 23, 2003

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

This article is used with permission

Popular books, movies and television shows are some of the few places addressing human-racism and the citizenship of nonhumans

The Christian right has been very upset with Harry Potter. Its constituents allege that Hogwarts celebrates witchcraft and juvenile disobedience. But they have missed an even more important reason to burn Rowlings’ books: Her radical opposition to human-racism.

As an example, Harry Potter’s friend Hermione becomes obsessed with elf rights when she discovers that elves are enslaved throughout the wizarding world, forced to work without pay, denied clothing and treated as subhuman. Yet elves are nearly as intelligent as human beings, if somewhat simple-minded in their slavish, magic-enforced commitment to their lives of service.

Hermione starts the Society for the Promotion of Elf Welfare, S.P.E.W., and tries to raise the consciousness of her classmates at Hogwarts. But her abolitionism meets with the same opposition that the opponents of slavery met 200 ago. “They’re happy that way.” “They aren’t human.”

Once Hermione is sensitized to the human-racism in the treatment of elves she begins to recognize it in the discrimination suffered by her werewolf and half-giant teachers. Then she makes a much more fundamental connection—human-racism against intelligent nonhumans is connected to the aristocratic racism against “muggles” (non-magical humans) and “mudbloods” (magical people with non-magical parents) central to Lord Voldemort’s fascism.

Refusing to recognize the basic dignity of intelligent nonhuman persons on racial grounds is only one step removed from the belief that some humans are biologically superior to others. Antifascist leader and school headmaster Albus Dumbledore also makes the connection when he grants elves rights, hires nonhumans and reaches out to the despised giants, counseling “we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

From aliens to posthumans

For the past 10 years I’ve been building a database of images of nonhuman intelligence in bestselling novels, top grossing films and popular television. I have suspected that the way these characters are portrayed reflects the popular mindset towards cultural difference in general, and lays the groundwork for the acceptance of actual intelligent nonhumans as citizens of our societies. As Donna Haraway writes in “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” “Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imagination.”

In recent years the intellectual polarization of transhumanists and human-racists has given new weight to what my wife had seen as just an excuse to read and watch a lot of science fiction. Stuart Newman and Jeremy Rifkin have filed their patent on a human-chimp chimera to stop all chimeric research and force the US government to decide how “human” you have to be to not be property. Wesley J. Smith has declared transhumanists “the next threat to human dignity,” since we, as do animal rights activists, don’t believe humanness should confer rights.

Despite the rising tide of human-racist reaction, I believe the popular tide is turning towards a concept of citizenship based on personhood and not DNA. I see this cultural progress in the treatment of nonhumans in fantasies such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, science fiction such as Star Trek and Star Wars, and even horror novels such as the positive vampire role models of Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Proving my point in a satisfactorily statistical way is another matter however.

My database includes depictions of nonhuman intelligence in bestselling hardback novels since 1895, the top 30 films each year since 1950 (by US box office receipts) and the top 10 Nielsen-rated television shows. I’ve been collecting and coding five types of depictions in particular:

• Earthlings: Earthlings include all corporeal species of intelligent life on Earth that originate on Earth, such as Neanderthals, elves, fairies and mermaids.

• Aliens: Aliens are any intelligent, corporeal life of extraterrestrial origin. This excludes alien viruses such as those in the Andromeda Strain.

• Posthhumans: Posthumans are humans that have mutated, evolved or been modified by natural events, cybernetics or biotechnology. This includes humans with minor adaptations, such as Darth Vader and the Six Million Dollar Man with their robotic parts, the quasi-biological transformations of vampires and werewolves, the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, mutants such as the X-men and the totally transformed descendants of humanity in Wells’s The Time Machine.

• Machine minds: Machine minds include robots such as C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars, cyborgs with machine minds such as those in Terminator movies, androids such as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation and distributed machine minds such as Hal in 2001. I’ve excluded all supernaturally or fantastically animate machines or objects, such as Stephen King’s evil car in Christine or evil factory in Mangler.

• Post-animals: Post-animals are animals bred or modified with biotechnology or cybernetics for intelligence and communication, such as the simians in Planet of the Apes. Animals that are somehow naturally or supernaturally clever, such as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the rats of Ben, the dog of Cujo, the seagulls of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the shark of Jaws or the birds of The Birds are not included.

The five-point scale

Of course the inclusion criteria are a little arbitrary. For instance, I excluded animated talking creatures even though a central theme of a movie such as Roger Rabbit is that “toons” are a subjugated, intelligent nonhuman species. I’ve also excluded witches, even though they are often depicted as having a genetic basis to their powers, but included vampires since their posthuman transformation usually has a crypto-biological explanation. And the challenge of choosing depictions to code pales next to the challenge of coding. In the simple-minded fashion of the quantitative sociologist (that appalls real culture critics) I’ve devised a five-point scale, from “-2” for very anti-nonhuman to “+2” for very pro-nonhuman, to sum up each book, TV show and film:

• +2: The nonhumans in these depictions are very intelligent, sympathetic, loveable or heroic, often more so than humans, or at least human authority figures. Examples: ET, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Mork and Mindy, Superman, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman.

• +1: Some nonhumans may “embrace the Dark Side” but most intelligent species can live together. Examples: Men in Black and the Star Trek and Star Wars universes. Or nonhuman existence can be difficult, but at least equal in value to ordinary human existence, as with Anne Rice’s vampires.

• 0: Creators of complex worlds and universes with many varieties of nonhuman intelligence tend to make the various races represent various moral traits and postures toward humanity. This is the most common model for fantasy fiction, paradigmatically in Tolkien’s world in which hobbits, dwarves and elves are good and humanity’s allies, and orcs, trolls and other species are evil. But science fiction and horror worlds also are frequently rich enough, or have complex enough characters, that there is as much pro-human as anti-human Other to be found. Examples: Blade Runner, Gremlins, Terminator 2 and The Fifth Element.

• -1: These stories generally portray a Darwinian struggle, without special animosity or irredeemable evil, but irreconcilable differences and needs. The nonhumans may simply be a competitor race, trying to survive. As Heinlein’s character says in Starship Troopers, “Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out—because both races are tough and smart and want the same real estate.”

• -2: Most often found in horror fiction, these stories generally depict the Other as specifically inimical to humanity, extremely dangerous, with horrific plans for humanity, and all of them must be destroyed. Examples include most classical vampires and invading aliens, and machine minds in Terminator 1.

Complex depictions

Of course, as with all sociological research, I validated this coding schema by subjecting 120 students in my sociology class to my eye-poppingly absurd ideas, and then requiring them to rate 200 depictions on this five-point scale. Although 120 white, middle-class American 18- to 22-year-olds are probably more representative of the zeitgeist than I am, they still have their limitations. I suspect that the idea of illegal alien immigrants in Men in Black looks a lot different to someone from Nicaragua.

But the final complexity of the study is how exactly the cultural product reflects the zeitgeist. Authors of a book or script are responding to their society when they write, and then their product is filtered through and reshaped by the biases of agents, editors, producers, financiers, directors and advertisers. Philip K. Dick writes a paranoid reflection on McCarthyite America in 1966 and then in 1990 his mutant-loving, anti-corporate story becomes Total Recall, shaped by a lefty Dutch director and a liberal Hollywood, becoming a smash hit in a US tiring of 10 years of Reaganism. There is a lot going on in every cultural product, and it’s hard to say whether the depictions of nonhuman intelligence really had anything to do with the way it was received.

Using my elaborate schema and database I haven’t been able to prove squat, one way or the other, basically because the depictions are getting increasingly complex. We’ve moved from the cheerful aliens in My Favorite Martian and Alf to the complex paranoia of X-Files. Human-animal chimeras went from being superheroes (Spiderman) or super-villains (Catwoman) to the revolutionary subalterns of Dark Angel. Robots evolved from Will Robinson’s and Princess Leia’s lovable servants and 2001’s murderous HAL to Star Trek’s Data and the persecuted robots of AI trying to prove that they are human enough to have human rights.

What is clear is that as the transhuman transition approaches, these cultural venues are the few places where the citizenship of nonhumans is being seriously debated—from Captain Picard’s defense of Data’s rights, to Hermione’s defense of elves to the complex moral universe of Buffy and Angel. These depictions make explicit the connections between racism against humans and human-racism against nonhumans. They externalize our anxieties about the possibility of a transhuman democracy, and allow us to start adjusting ourselves to its imminent arrival.