*First published at Wear Your Voice Magazine, December 2, 2016.*
A few months ago, a Facebook friend recommended the dystopian show The 100 because of a supposed woman-power narrative. Being the feminist I am — particularly one who is interested in the intersection between feminism and popular culture — I was excited to check it out.
The premise of the show is that a horrendous cataclysm has befallen the Earth, so people have been orbiting out in space for hundreds of years waiting for our old planet to be inhabitable once again. When it’s ready, a group of 100 teenagers will be sent back with the task of setting up a new colony. Trusting a group of hormonal teenagers with such a monumental task seemed rather absurd from the get-go, but hey, it’s the future and maybe teenagers are finally reliable.
As I began watching the first few episodes, I can’t say I noticed anything majorly feminist, other than a blonde chick taking on a leadership role. What I did notice was that while there was some diversity in representation, some black, Asian, and Hispanic teens — the future progenitors of the new Earth order — there is not a single South Asian.
What The 100 was telling me, on no uncertain terms, is that an ethnicity that makes up one of the Earth’s most populous regions did not survive into the far future. What in the actual fuck.
Stopped in my tracks, I started thinking about all the different dystopian stories I’ve watched over the years, to realize over and over again that South Asians often don’t exist in the future. We’ve been erased.
Here’s an alphabetical list of many and popular dystopian television shows from the 1990s onward whose cast lists I scoured on IMDB, looking for South Asian names and faces in prominent roles, or at least a role in which they are given a name:
12 Monkeys, The 100, Ascension, Almost Human, Andromeda, Battlestar Galactica (2004), Between, Black Mirror, Babylon 5, Caprica, Cleopatra 2525, Cleverman, Continuum, Dark Angel, Dark Matter, Defiance, Dollhouse, Doctor Who, Eureka, Falling Skies, Farscape, Fear the Walking Dead, Firefly, Fringe, The Expanse, Heroes, Humans, Into The Badlands, Jericho, Killjoys, The Last Man on Earth, The Last Ship, The Leftovers, Lexx, The Misfits, Orphan Black, Outcasts. Red Dwarf, Revolution, Primeval, Sense8, Sliders, Space: Above and Beyond, Stargate, Stargate Atlantis, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, The Stand, The Strain, Survivors, Terra Nova, Torchwood, V (2009), The Walking Dead, Warehouse 13, Wayward Pines, Westworld, X-Files, Z Nation, Zoo.
While this is by no means a comprehensive list of every single instance of dystopian television, it is enough to allow for some quick conclusions: only 27 of 59 television shows showed South Asians surviving into the future. Those shows are underlined above. I also have to point out that if I tighten my parameters by including only characters with a name who appear in more than one episode, the 27 drops to 18 of 59, and the majority of these shows only featured one South Asian character/actor: Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Dark Angel, Dollhouse, Doctor Who, Heroes, The Expanse, Humans, Jericho, Sense8, Primeval, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Survivors, Torchwood, V, Warehouse 13, X-Files and Z Nation.
There are far more dystopian films than I was fully able to survey, so here’s a list of just a few of the movies from the 1990s onward whose cast lists I studied for a quick comparison based on responses to a Facebook poll:
12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Aeon Flux, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, AVP: Alien Vs. Predator, The Book of Eli, Chappie, Children of Men, Code 46, Dark City, Deadpool, Demolition Man, District 9, Divergent, Doctor Strange, Doomsday, Elysium, The Fifth Element, Gattaca, The Giver, The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and 2, I Am Legend, Insurgent, Judge Dredd, Mad Max Fury Road, The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolutions, Maze Runner, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Minority Report, Planet of the Apes (2001), Predators, Real Steel, Resident Evil, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Road, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness, Star Trek Beyond, Star Wars: Episode I, Star Wars: Episode II, Star Wars: Episode III, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Strange Days, Total Recall (1990), Total Recall (2012), Tomorrowland, V for Vendetta, Waterworld, X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse.
Of these 63 films, only the 20 underlined above feature a South Asian actor whose character has a name. When expanding to include a South Asian actor who didn’t have a character name, the survey only increases by 5, including 28 Weeks Later, District 9, Catching Fire, I Am Legend, Planet of the Apes. WOW.
It’s also important to note: while it does have other South Asian actors, Star Trek Into Darkness whitewashed Khan (who was even played by a South Asian actor in the original movies) with Benedict Cumberbatch in its new iteration, and Tilda Swinton’s character in Doctor Strange was also whitewashed from a South Asian to a Celtic person.
Deadpool is the first X-Men film to feature a South Asian actor AT ALL.
Worth noting, as well, is that the remake of Total Recall 22 years later still has a diversity problem.
Worse, the young-adult dystopian fiction like Maze Runner, Hunger Games, and Insurgent — the children being our future and all — even more grotesquely highlight the cultural erasure of the South Asian community.
In other words, we have met the future, and it is white.
South Asians are a large and growing addition to the American landscape only in recent history, so in a way, their absence from dystopian media sort of makes sense –as disturbing as that thought may be. What ends up being more disturbing, in fact, is the total erasure of Native Americans from future-oriented media. It’s as if the hundreds of years of genocidal policies targeting the indigenous peoples of North America — including social policies like re-writing textbooks to erase darker moments in American history and the current standoff over water rights in Standing Rock — finally succeeded. And that thought is chilling.
In the UK, on the other hand, South Asians have been a huge minority going all the way back to through to the 1940s, but even earlier during the British colonial reign over India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and others. The fact that so few South Asians appear in British dystopian media could point to the ongoing racism and social exclusion that these communities face in Great Britain, to the point where they are actively erased from Britain’s future even if only in fiction. There is probably a huge chunk of British society who are comforted by the thought of a future without South Asian faces at all, so deep runs their hatred of these former colonized peoples, many of which actually helped build Britain into what it is today — at least, pre-Brexit.
While this line of inquiry has been troubling me for months, long before Election 2016 reached its horrifying conclusion, I now wonder if maybe these dystopian visions without South Asians and indigenous populations are a terrible foreboding prophesying a post-Brexit and post-Trump world in which people of color have not only been marginalized, they have been disappeared altogether from the Western landscape.
While the erasure of South Asians and Native Americans from future-oriented media was probably not on purpose, looking at the statistics of erasure in our current political and social context — where Donald Trump’s supporters are revealed as actual Nazis — is legitimately scarier than any of the horrifying dystopian futures these films have imagined.