“Battlestar Galactica,” a 2004-2009 TV hit series, creates a post-apocalyptic world containing only one race: Cylon. Features of the race have a striking resemblance to Asian Americans.
LeiLani Nishime, assistant professor of communication at the University of Washington, first began focusing on science fiction when she realized that Asian American representation in sci-fi is much better than that in any other genre. In a world where Asian American representation in the media is a rarity, Nishime takes an interest in a genre that makes Asian faces more of a commonality.
Nishime’s publications include “Aliens: Narrating U.S. Global Identity Through Transnational Adoption and Interracial Marriage in Battlestar Galactica,” and “The mulatto cyborg: Imagining a multiracial future,” published in 2011 and 2005, respectively.
Part of Nishime’s work analyzes the sci-fi genre’s tendency to portray a post-racial world, where race no longer matters or characters are often all one race. Nishime said she thinks part of the reason Asian Americans are used to portray this post-racial world is the growing concerns people have about Asia’s growing influence and the prevalence of Asian Americans in the United States.
“There’s a lot of concern over the growing power of Asia, and that often gets translated into this kind of science fiction representation,” Nishime said.
The National Intelligence Council reports that by 2030, technology development and strong economies will make Asian countries be the largest global powers, but that it’s likely countries such as China will also be “multipolar” and “unstable.”
“An increasingly multipolar Asia lacking a well-anchored regional security framework … would constitute one of the largest global threats,” the report stated, adding that U.S. involvement and increased Chinese nationalism would make the country more insecure. “An unstable Asia would cause large-scale damage to the global economy.”
Nishime added that sci-fi exhibits people’s concerns for the future. But sci-fi addresses race often in subtle or indirect ways, “dealing with contemporary issues, but doing it in a way that’s sort of once-removed.”
“We might not want to think through those problems or might distance ourselves from these problems,” Nishime said.
Often Asian American characters seen in the sci-fi genre are stereotypical ones, often portraying Asian Americans as robotic, intelligent and emotionless.
Nishime said she thinks part of the reason there is such little Asian American representation in the media — generally any genre outside of sci-fi — is that there are few Asian American producers. Many filmmakers are simply ignorant of the problem or disinclined to make it a priority. Without Asian American workers in the film industry, it’s less likely that there will be Asian American characters in the film.
“One follows the other,” Nishime said. “I think it’s very difficult to talk about discrimination against Asian Americans when it’s invisible.”
With sci-fi, while Asian American characters are still often stereotypically portrayed, Nishime said Asian American representation in itself helps the genre move forward.
“We at least become part of the conversation,” she said. “I try to hesitate as labeling images as being either positive or negative. I’m more interested in talking about them and ways in which they can be productive.”
Photo Caption: In her office in the Univeristy of Washington Communications Building, assistant professor LeiLani Nishime keeps shelves filled with several Asian American films; the top shelf contains DVDs of “Battlestar Galactica,” a TV series Nishime wrote about her publications.
Photo credit: Hayat Norimine.