Inhuman Figures: Robots, Clones, and Aliens

“Science fiction holds up an uncanny mirror that reflects what it means to be – or not to be – human,” Michelle N. Huang states at the start of this video essay. She herself concedes that is not a novel idea. What is original however is the investigation this piece then embarks upon. It takes three staple characters of sci-fi and examines how their onscreen depiction dovetails with prejudices of real (historical and contemporary) Asian Americans.


Huang (Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University) discusses robots, clones and aliens. All three are non-human, but all for different reasons. Robots are mechanical designs without feelings, clones aren’t born but replicated and aliens are, well, too alien to be understood. But these science fiction characters and their clichéd traits are only a jumping-off point.


This video essay draws parallels between each of those non-human forms and the way Asian Americans have historically been seen and declared as less than human. Like robots, they were regarded as obedient “laboring machines”. Like clones, their individual traits were disregarded. Like aliens, they were seen as inscrutable outsiders. In science fiction movies, Asian Americans were depicted as robots (Ex Machina), as clones (Cloud Atlas), and as alien. In reality, they often had to face the same bigoted and racist assumptions. “The imaginary has real effects,” is one of the opening statements of this smart and politically engaged video essay. On-screen representation has real effects too. But Huang shows that in this case, representation and reality are intertwined: one feeds off the other, the causation goes both ways.


Inhuman Figures was produced by the Weinberg College’s Media and Design Studio at Northwestern University with help from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Filmmaker CA Davis brings his storytelling skills and great production values to this video essay. Huang’s interview is professionally staged. The pace is (very) leisurely, which is at odds with a lot of contemporary rapid-fire YouTube video essays, but that is a welcome reprieve.  And last but not least, extensive 2D animated scenes were created to support the video’s argumentation. Those animations contrast nicely with the movie excerpts and the archival footage, creating a (critical and poetic) distance with the other audiovisual sources. It’s a smart choice: the animation functions as this video’s affective and ethical center of gravity, and helps to expose the biases embedded within the live action footage.