This essay examines gender and racial representation in Mars, a science fiction TV series produced by National Geographic in 2016. This docudrama shows new representations of women and racial minorities in the science fiction area.
Can the real-life Mars project achieve gender and racial equality? Through creating a character avoiding gender and racial stereotypes, Mars shows an answer to this question. In this short essay, I discuss representations of gender and race in Mars, and how they describe “hope” in this on-going project.
Female leaders and unconscious bias
National Geographic’s Mars changes passive female representations in science fiction and portrays gender bias in the society through characters and plot. There are three female characters who are leaders in this series: Hana and Joon Seung and Leslie Richardson. Hana Seung is a commander of Olympus Town, a colony on Mars. Also, her twin sister Joon works as secretary-general of the International Mars Science Foundation. Also, from season 2, Leslie Richardson takes over from Joon and contributes to the mission as a Secretary General. It is obvious this series focuses on female leaders, from their conversations, and especially Hana’s character. Several times, they mention the sexism they face as female leaders. Moreover, the male character’s reaction toward Hana shows hidden sexism and prejudice in the current society. For example, this could be seen in the scene when Hana and other crews go to meet Kurt Hurrelle, the commander of Lukrum, a company investing in the Mars mission, for the first time. Kurt greets and shakes hands with Glenn, who is a white male (14:06). Immediately Hana interrupts them and introduces herself, but Kurt’s behavior gives Hana a negative impression. Hana tells Joon that “this jerk from Lukrum treats me like a little girl” (32:04). Also, the audience can observe this by seeing the story from Hana’s perspective. It is obvious that Hana considers that there is gender bias in Lukrum because, after this scene, Hana sees a system engineer in Lukrum who says, “nice to see Lukrum has some women in their ranks” (32:40). Thus, these scenes discuss unconscious bias and gender gaps in society, reflecting the social pressure that a leader should be a (white) male.
In today’s situation, I think these hidden prejudices have a huge influence as much as obvious gender discrimination and violence based on gender. Emanuella Grinberg writes that “unconscious bias” can “happen but it’s hard to prove.” As the name “unconscious bias” suggests, it is complicated and problematic because we internalize the bias without noticing. Calvin Lai says that “some biases seem obviously wrong, like treating (equally qualified) people differently in hirings or promotions.” According to him, “everyday biases are hard to wrap our heads around because they’re so much more personal, and you can point to other reasons” (cited by Grinberg). Likewise, female leaders in Mars are not threatened, nor do they face obvious gender discrimination. However, this drama portrays hidden social expectations toward specific gender roles through these characters’ dialogue and their reactions.
Problems are around masculinity?
There are some male leaders such as Kurt Hurrelle, Lt. Glenn (a member of Olympus Town), and Roald St. John (CEO of Lukrum). They are also in decision-making positions, like Hana and Leslie. The characteristics which these three males have in common are their dictatorial attitudes and their autocratic decision making. For instance, Glenn goes against Hana’s orders and cuts the power supply to Lukrum, and Kurt insists using an explosion to find water underground while other crews oppose the idea. These characteristics are often considered to be positive in science fiction or adventure films. Rachel Giese, a Canadian journalist, writes about male protagonists in modern Hollywood films. She suggests that many of them are perfect and do not rely on other people, which is influenced by male characters in the Western genre (252). However, in this science-fictional TV series, masculinity leads to accidents. Workers in Lukrum suffer because of the power cut, and using an underground explosion causes a ‘Marsquake’, which leads to Kurt’s death in the end. Furthermore, Roald tries to hide Lukrum’s responsibility for the artificial Marsquake, but Leslie reveals the truth. Hence, in Mars, hyper-masculinity does not work as a benefit, like it does in many adventure and science fiction films.
Moreover, Mars avoids racial stereotypes. This is rare, especially in many texts within the science fiction genre, which contains examples of racial discrimination. Ikoma Natsumi, who is a scholar of English literature, points to this issue and says that many science fiction texts include misogyny, and many of them are male-oriented. Also, there are issues of racial discrimination and whitewashing (157). However, members in Olympus Town consist of various nationalities and races, and their characteristics are not related to their race. Also, Jihae Kim, who plays the main character, is an Asian female. In an interview, Jihae says her role is “definitely a ground-breaking role.” She goes on to say that “[t]here are not many leading roles for ethnic people in general and for Asian women. I think it’s fantastic” (0:29-0:38). As Jihae says, casting an Asian female as a leading role could be said to be an important development.
“Hope” in Mars
Also, the ending shows hope to the audience by depicting unity beyond race and nationality. This TV series ends with the discovery of the birth of artificial clouds. It is evidence of the success of terraforming, and the last picture of the show displays people who are applauding this result. The picture in which people who have different nationalities, races, and roles gather like a family, centering on a girl who is born on Mars. The new generation illustrates the possible future of humanity with the support of science and technology. Some critics say this ending is “too optimistic about what humanity is capable of” (Saraiya). I agree with this opinion, and the ending contradicts the theme this series discusses, like the problems human behavior causes. However, I also think this ending shows the possibility of “new science fiction” which could achieve equality across gender, race, and nationality.
In conclusion, Mars shows the possibility that humans achieve equality through the Mars mission by telling the story in a new narrative which overcomes gender and racial stereotypes. The ending may be considered as too simple and optimistic, but I believe Mars challenges gender and racial gaps in traditional science fiction and explores new “hope.” Therefore, the representation of gender and race in this TV series should be recognized and evaluated.
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Giese, Rachel. Boys; What It means to become a man. Translated by Naoko Tomita. DU Books, 2019.
Grinberg, Emanuella. “4 ways you might be displaying hidden bias in everyday life.” CNN, 25 Nov. 2015.
https://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/24/living/implicit-bias-tests-feat/index.html. Accessed 29 Feb 2020.
Ikoma, Natsumi. “Transforming into a Doll-Machine: Post-Woman Narrative of Body and Reproducting.” Shisou, 2019.
Kewley, Lisa J. “Diversity and Inclusion in Australian astronomy.” Nat Astron 3, 1067–1074 2019. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0954-1. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Kim, Jihae. “MCN Original Videos: Jihae calls her ‘Mars’ role “groundbreaking” for Asian women.” Youtube, uploaded by MCN original videos. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T5teIgzxaU. Accessed 2 Feb 2020.
Mars. 2016. Netflix.
Saraiya, Sonia. “TV Review: National Geographic’s ‘Mars,’ From Producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.” Variety, 2016.https://variety.com/2016/tv/reviews/tv-review-mars-ron-howard-brian-grazer-jihae-national-geographic-1201908874/ Accessed 29 Feb. 2020.
Haruka Nakajima is studying English literature and gender studies at the International Christian University as an undergraduate student. From September 2019 to March 2020, she was studying at York St John University as an exchange student. Her research area is female representations in Gothic literature.