Science Fiction and Cultural Appropriation

Science Fiction and Cultural Appropriation November 20, 2020

As someone very concerned about social justice and inclusivity, I am struck that the only times when anything I have shared has met accusations of cultural appropriation, they have had to do with science fiction.

One was when someone suggested that the Vulcan salute, originating from a priestly gesture in Judaism, is cultural appropriation. I was surprised, both because the creation of the Vulcan salute originated with Leonard Nemoy, a Jewish actor who saw it in a Jewish context and thus “appropriated” his own culture and shared it, making it a part of the fictional Vulcan culture and from there of Star Trek fan culture.

The other comes from the other enormous science fiction franchise, Star Wars, and more specifically the Mandalorian. A few Orthodox Christians objected to this depiction of Mando and the Child (aka Baby Yoda) in the style of Eastern Orthodox icons.

When I shared it I provided the caption ‘Ο Μανδαλωρ Θεου και το παιδιον. I realized later it would have been even better to say ό τεκνοτόκος. But the letter abbreviations in the icon (most likely a remnant of the one the icon was adapted from and based on) requires the former to make sense of it. Most people liked it, some were puzzled. When one person asked “what on earth?” I suggested that “what on Mandalore?” or “what on Tatooine?” would be more appropriate questions.

But seriously, having had responses all of which seemed to reflect accounts which “defend” Christian culture from a standpoint of white European supremacy (as well as a particular brand of macho masculinity), I have to ask whether imperialist cultures past and present, those that have spread their cultural influence far and wide, can complain that their culture is then used by others who transform it in ways they are unhappy with in the process. But I am also interested in the question of whether science fictional use of a particular artistic style, or of a gesture of the hand, or for that matter the weaving of LDS characters into The Expanse and Christian characters into fiction by Ray Bradbury or Mary Doria Russell, and the far-future changes envisaged to Christianity in Dune and Doctor Who, are “cultural appropriation”?

Perhaps my view of this is influenced by my interest and involvement in music. There is no musical culture sealed off from any other. No genre today exists in the absence of borrowing, influence, and transmission across time and space in ways that have changed it. Moreover, the attempt to define culture as something impermeable can serve hegemonic aims, for instance segregating something like “Black culture” off as something that Whites should not and cannot learn from and vice versa. Free multidirectional cultural sharing can also be imperialistic, as we may think of in the case of Hellenism, which let other regional traditions and ideas be affirmed, but in a context that gave the Greek language and culture predominance. There is no way to keep a culture “pure” nor does any culture completely adopt another. But the claim to be able to do so can serve very disturbing ends, and has done so on occasion.

But let me return to this specific example. Is a Star Wars icon ethically inappropriate? Even if it were intended in a spirit of mockery, which I do not have any reason to think it was, shouldn’t those who live in a culture that values freedom of speech defend the right to mock, with brakes being applied when it is those with power who mock, ridicule, and denigrate those who are marginalized and persecuted? In other words, isn’t the issue about power and balancing free speech with defending the oppressed from bullying? Given the threats from white supremacist types who proclaimed themselves the defenders of “Christian culture” on Twitter, it seems to me that sharing this to challenge them and to follow by refusing to bow to their bullying could be a valuable and useful action.

One great response to the image was:

Mando is the father we need in 2020, a true saint. Keep your mask on. Keep your kid(s) close. This is the way.

The artist has a presence on Reddit as well as a storefront where you can buy this and other art on a t-shirt. See too the other Star Wars icons created by Alex Ramos.

One thing that was very strange was that some suggested that this was similar to drawing Muhammad. For me, the equivalent of that would be depicting Mando without his helmet…

What do you think of the image? What are your views on the broader question of cultural appropriation?

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