Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Version 3 (The Incompetent)

Definition of the Trope: Unlike the Token, the Incompetent usually has a larger role in the picture, and – sometimes – they happen to have a starring role. Unfortunately, despite any stated experience or education (and this is also regardless of the stated field of expertise), the Incompetent will not be of any good whatsoever to the group that she works with. This version is often paired with Trope Version 1 (The Token), and this is a very disheartening combination of stereotypes to deal with.

Why the Trope Fails: Someone has to be the bungler, the person who screws everything up, the one who is prone to faults of logic and/or a lack of bravery in the face of danger, so why not the only Woman of Color in the main cast?

Additional Trope Notes: Characters who land in this trope are oftentimes, like some Version 1 Tokens, last minute fill-ins.  Their lack of competence, despite any stated (or implied) education or training in their specialized fields, is seen as a virtue by the writers, because this is a quick way to write in flaws and shortcomings for the character, thus making them “more fleshed out” as a possibly fully realized character.

Now, while it is good to have a character with flaws and shortcomings, the problem here is that for Women of Color, these are the only qualities that tend to remain with their characters from start to finish. Women of Color who are caught in this Trope are never allowed a moment where they can rise to occasion in proportion to the flaws and misgivings that they have as characters – or, even more egregiously, they are not given of moment of “Awesome” for their entire character existence.

How to Avoid Falling for This Trope: This trope is almost as easy to overcome as the Version 1.  Remember that your character needs to be given moments of greatness.  The greater their character flaws, the higher on the scale that their character moment of Awesome (or the moments of “Cool”) needs to be.  What makes the Version 3 much more satisfying to correct is that you already have a foundation of a character who is a flawed person – thus this character has a greater chance of connecting with the viewer than most.  Add a plus side to the character’s flaws and you get a non 2-dimensional character.

Dr. Davis of Sliders (Season 5).  Character example of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Dr. Davis of Sliders (Season 5). Character example of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Example of the Trope: Dr. Diana Davis of Sliders. Since Jerry O’Connell and his brother Mark left the show in Season 4 – and the Sci-Fi Channel wanted to continue the show, two new characters were created. The first was a more “macho” Quinn who gets mixed in with the original Quinn. The second is a scientist from macho Quinn’s world, Dr. Diana Davis. She was supposed to round out the show’s demographic by simply being an African-American woman playing a scientist. However, like most Black women on these shows, her talents are rarely called upon to save the world. Or in the case of Sliders, just about every world they end up on. This would not be end of her incompetence, however, as she is made to try to change her own history and makes a cold-hearted taskmaster of herself out of it. Then, in the very next episode, while the rest of the team is trying to fight against an enemy they know very little about, Diana is stuck in some corner, scared to the point of cowardice.  Her subsequent appearances in episodes, while not as appallingly bad as the first two episodes to feature her in a near-leading role, don’t lend to her character’s intellect and/or position as a scientist.

Carla Dunkirk (left) interrogating Hannah Lewis about Matt Saunders.  A one-trick character if there ever was one.

Carla Dunkirk (left) interrogating Hannah Lewis about Matt Saunders. A one-trick character if there ever was one.

Example of the Trope: Carla Dunkirk of My Super Ex-Girlfriend. The only thing that Carla was interested in was Matt Saunders’ sex life – or rather, Matt Saunders’ penchant for ‘Sexual Harassment.’ Carla was supposed to be the “HR Director from Hell,” but she turns out to be yet another distraction in an otherwise original concept wrapped in a rather unfunny package. The reason why Carla is dropped into the “Incompetent” trope is because she is not shown doing much of anything else but spying on Matt Saunders when he and Hannah are flirting around.

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One Response to Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Version 3 (The Incompetent)

  1. Pingback: Movies That Hate You: My Super-Ex Girlfriend | Loose Cannon

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