Salma Hayek, Sci-Fi, and Diversity: Still More Promise Than Reality

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Salma Hayek appeared at the Cannes Film Festival recently, promoting her new fantasy-horror film, Tale of Tales. However, she made another important appearance at a panel at the Women in Motion talks in France, where she spoke about Hollywood’s double standards not just for women, but for minorities as well. One thing she said, about an unnamed director who really wanted her for a part (which sounds like Sandra Bullock’s role in Gravity), but caved to the studio in order to get the film made, resonated with me. The studio’s repeated rejections were a hurdle because executives expressed  incredulity at the concept of “A Mexican in space?”

Rodolfo Neri Vela, the first Mexican in space, blasted off 30 years ago this year. A Cuban named Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez was the first Latino and the first black person ever in space. An astronaut from California, Ellen Ochoa, was not only the first Latina in space, but she is the current director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Franklin Chang-Diaz, Sidney Gutierrez, Joseph Acaba, John Olivas, Jose Hernández. Those are just some of the astronauts of Latin American origin or descent, including, yes, of Mexican heritage. The studios could’ve easily looked to reality to see that not only have Latinos been to space, but so have non-whites from other countries. Whoever the studio executives were,  their inability to see a Mexican as someone who could convincingly play the part of a woman who, under some circumstances, traveled into space, that says a lot about the work that still needs to be done in both Hollywood and in our society, given who we picture in certain roles.

A report from USC released last year says that Latinos had just 4.9% of the speaking parts in the top 100 films of 2013. Latinos do, however, make up around 16% of the US population, and about 25% of movie ticket buyers. In fact, audiences heading to Furious 7, a film with a very diverse cast, were 75% POC and half women, which was named as reason for that film’s great box office success. In the US, the percentage of high school graduates going on to enroll in college is now greater than the percentage of white students. With Latinos and demonstrated buying power, as well as growing population and educational attainment, the idea of a Mexican in space shouldn’t be so far-fetched.

In fact, Hayek also emphasized women’s spending at the talks as a way for the industry to start paying attention. “The minute they see money, things will be instantaneously different,” she said at the talk. Given that women already buy over half of movie tickets and are still treated like a niche group in an industry where top executives are still mostly white men, making our mark with financial backing of films and TV is sending a message, but more needs to happen. Like the old adage about women ourselves, we have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition. Maybe our support of creative works has to be twice as loud or as financially successful to impact future decisions. Yet, even if women are being hired into prominent roles more openly, that doesn’t mean people of color are too.  Salma Hayek isn’t an unknown in Hollywood, and so the argument couldn’t be made about a lack of name recognition, even internationally. Not casting Salma Hayek because she’s not right for the  role is something I can understand, but if the director wanted her and believed she fit the part, but the dismissal came down to her ethnicity, that is a huge disappointment, especially since the film was sci-fi.

Genre fiction, especially sci-fi, through imaginative analogues, explore some of the toughest issues and difficult questions we face. Sci-fi can reflect a future where understanding and tolerance grow and reign, or bleakness and harsh treatment are the norm. Sci-fi can explore the strange, the weird, and the difficult, filtered through characters to identify with, empathize with, root for, hope alongside, be scared with, and even grow to feel almost like a real friend might. Sci-fi is a genre of potential, and for many of us, especially those of us who grew up as nerdy kids, especially nerdy minority kids, searching faces and names for people like us on our screens, in our books, or even in our games, it was one of the few genres to feature them. Although, even sci-fi and fantasy films aren’t always as diverse as we might have hoped, throughout the years, and often especially on television, there were opportunities for nerdy girls growing up between cultures and languages could see others who might bear resemblance to us or our family names.

Sci-fi, for many of us who don’t always see ourselves or anyone like us, represented in movies or on TV, or even in books or comics, was always a place of hope. Maybe that future someday will include someone like me. Maybe we’ll have those leadership positions in our own future. For geeks like me who grew up with well-meaning parents who taught us “You can be whatever you want to be”, to see stats like 4.9% of speaking roles in the top 100 films when we’re all adults now is disheartening. That’s not even saying anything about the quality of those roles or their adherence, or not, to stereotypes. Casting women and people of color in visible roles, including those of scientists, doctors, politicians, and yes, astronauts, helps show kids growing up, those kids who still search in our ever-connected, screens everywhere age, for people with names like theirs, heritage like theirs, and who look like themselves. Sci-fi still has the potential to break new ground, and casting a Latina in space would be a great step forward, and—a reminder—one that already reflects reality.

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