Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Alien

| 2 Comments

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Have you been an alien before? I have. If you have been before you will totally understand this. The US term “alien physician” for a certain visa (J1) for foreign physicians coming in for medical training in the US. I was the J2 (dependent; so technically I was the spouse of an alien).
I always wondered why they used that term. So…alienating? Ha

So I was reflecting on a Disney cartoon my kid and I love called Miles from Tomorrow. I love it coz my kid learns so much science from it (no, really, even I do). But it has a lot of annoying assumptions about what it means to be alien. It’s set in the future where a kid named Miles and his family live in outer space and interact with species from all over the universe as they travel on their starship. But the cartoon has the following really annoying assumptions. It’s human-centric in an annoying way by making humans the default species universally. For example :

  1. They call everyone other than themselves “space aliens” which makes no sense because their parents’ bosses aren’t human
  2. All of the robo pets across the universe look like earthling animals. Robo-ostritch, robo-cat, robo-dog, robo-turtle. Really. Even robo-penguins. Even though they once found an adorable non-intelligent species (aptly called adorbies no less) – for the most part, it’s very earth-centric
  3. Species from all over the universe tend to speak English. Only occasionally does Loretta (Miles’ sister) need to use her bracelex to translate what another species is communicating in writing or speech. Like this is REALLY rare
  4. Species look only slightly different from eartlings. All intelligent beings are upright. Occasionally there are a couple of differences, e.g. skin color. Most look exactly like humans with two eyes and ears and a mouth. Some are missing noses; one has a trunk instead. Most have hands and legs, few have them look different. Older aged individuals in a species are white-haired (I mean, really!) and the admirals (Miles’ parents’ bosses) are Siamese twins of an alien green species that have 3 eyes each. Otherwise they behave like humans, eating bananas, brushing teeth and listening to music on headphones. Argh. Too human. Too too human. I mean right here on earth all animals don’t look as similar as that. Why are our imaginations limited by how we see our own selves?
  5. One species (of which Miles’ friend blodger belongs) looks like a blob of jelly with eyes. Yay. Different. But look at the technology in use. Something called an exoplex (i think) is a large suit of armor that you climb into and it allows you to make it move as if you’re a giant made of metal and therefore you can carry heavy stuff (like its arms are like a truck or something). This exoplex is basically a transformer-type body that resembles a v metallic and strong human. When blodger rides it he comments on how difficult it is for him to drive it because he isn’t used to having arms or legs to control. That’s discriminatory design for you
  6. One time they met an alien called Spectrix whose vision allowed him to see infrared (heat) rather than human-spectrum light vision. This was an eye-opening episode about perspective and what we can and cannot see from the perspective of another. I wouldn’t critique this episode for much, except that this Spectrix character spoke English fluently even as he went on about how awful humans were (until they helped him and he started liking them when he understood they truly hadn’t seen his ship made of material invisible to humans and so didn’t mean to crash into him). 

    All I am saying is that this (really otherwise beautiful) work of science fiction has embedded into it a lot of discrimination. Of defaulting to the creators’ own selves in imagining different others so that they really aren’t going too far from making human as default. In the same way we make white male as default. Everything else is just a version removed from that and we design our worlds for the default and others need to adapt. The world is designed for right-handed people and no one stops to think how difficult it id for lefties like me to use keys and don’t get me started on KITCHEN appliances that assume right-handedness. You only know if you’re left-handed.

    So I guess they need some “aliens” to help them design the show.

    While living in Houston I volunteered at Texas Children’s and occasionally an Egyptian family would need help translating. Alienness comes in handy sometimes. I was telling Simon Ensor the other day how those at intersections can offer portals or bridges for us to reach others 2 steps removed from ourselves. But that’s another blogpost.

    2 Comments

    1. The use of “alien” for foreigner in official US parlance has always struck me as odd, and I remember it from the mid 60s when I first heard it on TV in the form of a televised reminder to all “aliens” to register annually at a local post office by 1st each year. In SiFi, “alien” replaces the Greek, barbarian, for non-Roman citizen / non-Earth human.

      Some SiFi writers – Clarke for instance – explore more exotic forms of alien life. How aliens are depicted depends on the type of role they play in the story. When they interact with humans in a significant way, they are generally depicted as human or human-like. This is common in the various iterations of Star Trek, though that may have been due, in part, to technical limitations of the times (late 60s), and to budget constraints. More exotic aliens appear in Star Wars about ten years later, with a bigger budget and improved technology as well as a different message.

      I don’t see discrimination embedded in this. If anything, the genre allows us to suspend normal rules and expectations and imagine a different world, where appearances and origins are not important.

      • But why aren’t aliens invisible to us, or at least tiny and powerful like viruses? Why do we depict them in our own image? Cartoons have no limitations. Intelligent alien life need not at all be human-like. By depicting them as human-like and English-speaking we limit our capacity to accept those different from ourselves by making ourselves the default. I think 🙂

    Leave a Reply

    Follow

    Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

    Join other followers:

    %d bloggers like this: