Race and Alien Face: The Other-Worldly Roles of Zoe Saldana
By Danielle Alexis Orozco
Frightful Latinas: A Súper-natural Horror
With the recent arrival of Michael Chaves’ and James Wan’s The Curse of La Llorona in theatres, audiences can watch a mythic Mexican folklore come to life. With gray moth-eaten skin, a white tattered dress, sheets of greasy black hair, claw-like fingernails, and haunting yellow eyes that threaten to eat you alive, the figure of the La Llorona clutches the viewer in her demonic grip—unrelentingly horrific as you stifle back a shiver
Such an un-worldly representation of Latinas—one that shocks or horrifies, while also drawing in crowds desiring to see the fearful embodiment of the Mexican myth—isn’t new. In some ways, it’s an old Hollywood tradition, keen on showing depictions of horrific or alien difference to solidify ideas of “safety” in the public imagination. In other words, you can sit comfortably in your theatre seat, eating the stale popcorn from the concession stand, unharmed as the terrifying La Llorona lunges towards you while you sip your soft drink.
In Charles Ramirez Berg’s Latino Images in Film, he posits that Latinas have been historically represented in cinema as either the figure of the hypersexual Harlot or the aloof Dark Lady. While these dualistic roles have been a problem for Latinas who navigate the racism and sexism of the industry (as seen through testimonies like Salma Hayek’s on the monstrous conduct of Harvey Weinstein), Latinas also tend to be represented in other more horrific ways, in vivid narratives that paint them as the inhumane monster: something to be simultaneously feared and desired… the alien, the other.
“It’s Alive!”: Zoe Saldana as Alien Other
As an example, consider Zoe Saldana and the films she has appeared in, including—arguably—her most visible roles as the blue-skinned Na’vi Princess Neytiri in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Lieutenant Uhura on the USS Enterprise in J.J. Abram’s Star Trek (2009), and the intergalactic green-skinned assassin in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
In at least two of these films, she appears as the alien other—her difference becoming apparent as she is transformed through CGI, prosthetics, and make-up to perform green and blue-skinned extraterrestrials in ways that we have not seen other female leads in action, science-fiction, or superhero films appear (i.e. Gal Gadot’s Wonder-Woman and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel).
Although she is a highly prolific actress starring in some of the same films as other bankable stars like Scarlett Johannsen, she still doesn’t earn comparable wages. In an industry where roughly 3% percent of speaking roles in top US grossing films are afforded to Latinx performers, this disparity reflects not only racial but gendered discrimination.
Born as Zoe Yadira Saldaña Nazario, the actress has a racially mixed heritage of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Haitian ancestry. While she has been able to play strong female characters, her beauty is usually objectified or exoticized, playing straight into the Harlot or Dark Lady tropes. Additionally, Saldana usually portrays the love interest of a heterosexual white-male hero which obscures her own expressions of queer sexuality—desires which she revealed in an interview with Allure magazine back in 2016.
Pixels and Paint: The Negotiations of Alien-Face
So, why is it that Saldana is continuously featured in roles where she dons blue and green make-up, or wears prosthetics to alter her appearance and emphasize difference? Ultimately, these roles—which feature, emphasize, or allude to difference—reveal Hollywood’s preoccupation with the idea that Latinas like Saldana embody alien otherness, resulting in acts of “alien-face.”
Like 19th century black-face minstrelsy, I understand “alien-face” as a performative act. In his book Love and Theft, Eric Lott writes that in these theatrical productions, white performers would don greasepaint or burnt cork to caricature black individuals for sport and profit. These exaggerated caricatures, through ridicule and appropriation, ultimately solidified white supremacist ideas of racial difference.
However, as performance scholar Paloma Martinez-Cruz writes, black people were also periodically involved in the production of minstrel shows. In a time when enslaved black individuals had little social, political, or economic power, they contributed their own expressions and talents in such shows, thus furthering their artistic and professionalization pursuits. In this way, Hollywood seems to parallel minstrel productions of the 19th century as Latinas strive for not only presence in media, but ethical representation.
In a way, Saldana’s performances reflect more insidious imaginings regarding Latinas in the mainstream film industry…not only does Hollywood slate Saldana, as an Afro-Latina—to play the alien ethnic other. According to the film industry, sheis the alien ethnic other— a body that is meant to be commodified, controlled, and consumed on-screen. Caught in such a precarious position, Saldana assumes the identity of the alien other—not for character or sport—but for visibility.
Yet even as Saldana plays exotic and erotic aliens, or roles that seem to stem from a fearful desire of the Latina subject, she—like black individuals who used their talents in minstrel productions—has moments in her performances where her characters express moments of power through empathetic narratives, pushing against the racism and sexism that govern cinematic conventions.
Phantasmagoric Beauty: Princess Neytiri of Pandora
In one of Saldana’s first roles as the alien other, she performs Princess Neytiri in Avatar (2009). Often called “Pocahontas in Space,” the film has been critiqued for its creation of a fictional alien-race called the Na’vi people—an ethnic conflation of global indigenous cultures.
The blockbuster has also been called out for reproducing tropes of white male saviordom by placing the heroic journey of paraplegic marine, Jake Sully, at the film’s center. After plugging into a 10-foot tall avatar of a Na’vi body, Sully is sent to Pandora’s jungles to obtain information about the Na’vi people for colonization purposes. Here, we get our first dream-like glimpse of Saldana transformed as Neytiri…
In the jungle, she lies belly-down, sensually straddling a tree as she spies on Jake, her semi-nude backside taking the length of the film’s frame. Her blue-striped skin is positioned against green foliage and slivers of light on her lower-back draw the viewer’s gaze towards her buttocks, thighs, and tail. A close-up of Neytiri’s face follows, and viewers watch her full lips part as she continues to carefully observe Jake from a distance.
Although such moments may seem relatively mundane, these voyeuristic scenes suggest Neytiri’s face and body are the most important features of her exotic beauty, making it clear that we as an audience are primarily meant to consume her body through gaze. Promotional film materials emphasizing her face also signal we’re only supposed to pay attention to her alluring, out-of-this-world physicality.
Even though Neytiri is a strong character in her own right—in that while she is a warrior, she also teaches Jake how to love and sustain Na’vi life—her power is ultimately undermined by her lover. Essentially, Neytiri is a peripheral character who provides support to Sully as he fulfills his hero’s journey. Such roles that imagine Saldana as an alien love interest or sexual object can also be seen in Star Trek (2009).
The Struggle to Prosper: Lt. Uhura in Star Trek
In this role, Saldana performs a young woman who is at the top of her class, studying Xenolinguistics (or the study of alien languages) so she can intercept and interpret intergalactic messages for high-profile leaders. She is confident and assertive, arguing for her placement on the USS Enterprise.
However, once again, we see that she fills the role of the supporting character in relation to the white, heterosexual, male heroes of this action film (i.e. Commander Spock and Captain James Kirk). While Kirk expresses explicit sexual interest and desire for her in several scenes—some of which involve the groping of her breasts during a bar fight and secretly spying on her as she undresses in her bedroom—Spock is Uhura’s lover, and she enacts traditional (and expected) scripts of femininity as she comforts him when his planet and family perish in a Romulan attack.
Even if Uhura’s personality is given dimension, it’s only to assist other major characters in their emotional and physical journeys. Much like Neytiri’s relationship with Sully, Uhura’s romantic relationship with Spock overshadows Saldana’s own feelings about her queer sexuality. As Saldana performs the familiar role of love interest and sexual object to the straight white male heroes of the film, Uhura reflects problematic conventions of a toxic heteronormative culture comfortable with sexualizing the Latina body through gaze.
Resistance vis-à-vis Alien-Face: Gamora from Guardians
In one of her most recent roles as the alien other, Saldana plays Gamora in the Guardians franchise. Surgically modified and trained to be a living weapon after escaping genocide on her home planet, Gamora is the adopted daughter of supervillain Thanos. Although initially coded as evil due to her association with the maniacal tyrant, she ultimately defects from Thanos’s diabolical clutches to join the hero squad, the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Even though her role as an alien other seems to reproduce familiar romance narratives of heteronormative partnerships with the white male hero of the story (i.e. her relationship with Star Lord, played by Chris Pratt), this performance of alien-face features more complexity than her previous roles.
(Spoiler Alert): Though Gamora is killed by Thanos in The Avengers: Infinity War (2018) in a gesture that stings of patriarchal and capitalist violence—via his sacrificial act of murdering his favorite daughter in order to gain possession of a precious infinity stone—her story is one of onerous resistance. As a survivor of genocide and an immigrant between planets, Gamora offers a vivid depiction—and perhaps a dark reflection—on the real and violent systems of power that affect woman of color, particularly migrant women—in their experiences traveling across international borders.
Indeed, we see her experience bodily violence in the 2014 film when her and the guardians are momentarily incarcerated at an infamous space prison. Upon recognizing her as Thanos’s daughter, the prisoners call her “murderer” and “whore.” Such dizzying verbal assaults culminate when a group of rogue male prisoners—who are aided by the inaction of a negligent officer—hold her down with brute force and prison shanks, hell-bent on carrying out a death sentence. However, she cleverly outmaneuvers the prisoners by not only disarming her attackers, but by wielding their own weapons against them
If Saldana, like black performers in minstrelsy productions, is enacting resistance through creative expression, she does so her in role of Gamora. She is deadly yet intelligent and empathetic as she strategizes with the guardians on how to, literally, save the universe.
Los Intersticios: To Infinity and Beyond
Despite her love of space-alien characters like Neytiri and Gamora who—through the speculative power of science-fiction—strive to represent images of possibility for historically marginalized groups, Saldana has revealed her disquieting experiences in the film industry. In a 2018 interview with Porter Magazine, she recalls reading scripts where she is continuously queued for the “supporting ethnic role.”
Caught in what queer Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa calls los intersticios, Saldana seems to occupy a tense position of in-betweenness. While she can play strong female characters (individuals that are respected and revered by fans), she is also subject to type-cast roles that threaten to fetishize her, capitalizing on her ethnic difference via her performances of alien-face—roles in which she represents the alien other. This is not to critique Saldana or strip her of agency with regard to the roles she plays, but rather to critically reflect upon the presence of Latinas in mainstream media.
In a reality where women of color, particularly Latinas like Saldana, are imagined and dehumanized into the image of the exotic and alien other figure (even in genres like science fiction which should afford narratives of cinematic possibility), the film industry continues to reflect conservative anxieties and desires regarding race, gender, and sexuality.
Yet, there’s hope, as Saldana contends. In the Porter Magazine interview, she states if “you are in a position of leadership, that means that you have the responsibility to guide the narrative and re-shape it and put it on the right track.” While Latina performers have often been in front of the camera, actresses like Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria, America Ferrera, and Gina Rodriguez campaign for representation in media shaping processes through their roles as film directors and television producers.
Saldana herself has started BESE, an innovative production company that aims to empower Latinx people across digital platforms. Additionally, her recent voice role in Missing Link (2019) suggests power behind otherness as she portrays the immigrant of Adelina Fortnight. Fans are also buzzing about the potential future of Gamora given her recent appearance in Endgame. One hopes that her character continues to develop if she appears in Guardians 3, enacting modes of resistance that defy images of hypersexuality even while still in alien-face.
Shifts towards intersectional politics that place Latina creators like Saldana at the centers of their own cultural production through empathetic narratives can provide space for more ethically responsible and inclusive representation. Hopefully, one day, the image of the horrific alien other—embodied by Latinas—that has been imprinted on our collective imaginations can be nothing more than a terrible nightmare.