Diversity in Star Wars

Originally posted at Tosche Station on July 2, 2013

Casting rumors have been flying around rampantly almost as long as we’ve known about the Sequel Trilogy and with the recently leaked Episode VII casting breakdown, it seemed like a good time to tackle an issue that’s been bothering me a lot lately: the lack of diversity in leading roles in the Star Wars galaxy when it comes to gender, race, and species.

The Star Wars galaxy is an incredibly diverse place.  There is an in-numerous amount of different species in the galaxy far far away all living on hundreds upon hundreds of different planets.  So why is it the default in Star Wars films and literature to (almost) always make the protagonist a white male?

Think I’m exaggerating?  I recently completed a reread of 130 Expanded Universe books.  Out of those 130, only 15 of those books had a leading character who was not a straight white man, excluding books that you could potentially argue are led by Skywalker women.  Five of those books are the Republic/Imperial Command novels and I’m even including books like The Cestus Deception and The Approaching Storm which were co-led by aliens and (you guessed it) a straight white male.  15 out of 130. That’s about 12%.  In a galaxy where I couldn’t even name all of the alien species if I tried?  I haven’t sat down and looked at every single main book in the Expanded Universe but I reckon that number wouldn’t rise much above 15%.  That’s pretty bad and unfortunately, the films don’t do any better.

Star Wars is an epic universe that is ripe with opportunity for diversity.  This is science fiction we’re talking about here.  To quote writer Jane Espenson, And if we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”  If the vast majority of the named cast is white and mostly male, then the creators are failing at truly embracing the core tenants of what science fiction should be about.  What really makes all of this jarring is when you watch the films (especially the Prequel Trilogy) and see the wide variety of species and races in the background.  It’s not that the writers and the character designers and the special effects artists are lacking in imagination because clearly those characters and those ideas are there.  So why haven’t we been seeing more Star Wars stories with more diversity in the forefront?

When looking at the films alone, it is easy to see the problems with the lack of women.  While we devoted fans could likely rattle off the names of over a dozen women in the Original Trilogy, casual fans would likely be hard pressed to name more than Princess Leia, Aunt Beru, and perhaps Mon Mothma and Oola.  Four named female characters in 387 minutes of film.  When you look at the Prequel Trilogy, that ratio doesn’t drastically improve.  The idea that women are incapable of handling themselves or of being leaders and heroes is absurd in Star Wars just as much as it is in real life.  After all, it was Leia Organa who was the best shot in the Original Trilogy and in The Phantom Menace, we saw Padmé and her handmaidens holding their own in the Battle for Naboo.  Of course, this is hardly a problem that is unique to Star Wars but is instead pervasive in Hollywood itself.  According to a study by the University of Southern California, only 29.9% of the 4,379 speaking roles in the top 100 grossing films in 2007 were given to females.  If the Sequel Trilogy is intending to keep to the pattern and focus on Luke’s child, then I suggest it’s high time a Skywalker daughter took center stage.

Many of the same diversity problems carry over to race and species.  The books have been at least somewhat better with trying to pepper the supporting cast with aliens and the Prequel Trilogy was filled with plenty in the background.  Again, the white actor preference for roles isn’t something that is unique to Star Wars in Hollywood.  According to a study at UCLA that looked at casting breakdowns in 2006, 69% of roles were reserved for white actors with 8.5% being open to actors of any race.  One of the things that thrilled me when I read the rumored casting breakdown for Episode VII was that no races were specified for the actors.  After the Hunger Games films specifically chose to look at only Caucasian actresses for the definitely not white Katniss Everdeen, this was a welcome change.  Again, the Sequel Trilogy has the opportunity to help fix a lot of diversity problems that the previous six films had.  They can set a precedent for years and for stories to come.

A lot of these arguments can also be applied to the portrayal of relationships.  It’s strange that in a HUGE galaxy with thousands of species and trillions of beings that we’ve barely seen any relationships that aren’t heterosexual.  In fact, we’ve seen more page time devoted to the Hutts’ asexual reproduction process than we have to same-sex couples.  The only instance that I can personally recall of seeing any was in Karen Traviss’s Legacy of the Force books.  Yes, dear readers, the world has seen gay Mandalorians and it didn’t end.  More homosexual relationships should be shown in the Star Wars universe especially in the books and heck, more sort of relationships should be shown in general because I find it hard to believe that every single species has binary sexes.

While much of the focus on this piece has thus far been on the Sequel Trilogy, changes also need to made within the Expanded Universe novels.  There are multiple eras currently where stories take place within even more story lines.  Within those stories is relatively nothing demanding that the story’s protagonist be an inevitably white human male.   The supporting casts of the stories could use a bit more diversity too.   The Expanded Universe books certainly have made some progress here.  One only has to look at the post-Return of the Jedi novels to see more alien characters who have prominent roles like Admiral Ackbar or Borsk Fey’lya or Saba Sebatyne.  However, these characters are not the focus of the story but rather only play large supporting roles in the tales of the Skywalker clan.

In all fairness, the recent Clone Wars animated series has made some forward progress.  The inclusion of Ahsoka Tano as a main character when she is a female alien is wonderful as is the use of more female characters like Asajj Ventress, Bo Katan, Satine, and other female Jedi from the films who had only minor roles.  In the last year, we saw the publication of Into the Void which featured a female lead who wasn’t tied to a love story and also Mercy Kill which was led by a Gamorrean, Piggy.  Unfortunately, it’s not enough.

We need to have more parts of the Star Wars universe that feature more women and that feature them prominently as stars of their own stories and not the love interest or the accessory to someone else’s.  We need to see more human characters with a variety of skin tone colors.  We need to see more aliens being the heroes of their own stories.  It’s important that kids watching the films and the TV shows and that everyone reads the books can look at these stories and not subconsciously feel like they aren’t tales written for them because they almost only feature white guys.  While it may take a special sort of person to be a hero, we need to send the message that it doesn’t matter what a hero looks like or what gender a hero is.  A popular franchise like Star Wars has the opportunity to set a new standard for casting and for lead characters that others just might follow.

I’d like to take the time to go ahead and address a few specific points that could potentially come up.

But the Skywalker/Solos are white and they’re the main characters so the leads have to be white!
Yes.  Padmé, Anakin, Luke, Leia, and Han are all white.  That doesn’t mean that every person around them needs to be.  I invite you to give me one valid reason why Luke Skywalker’s wife in the Sequel Trilogy (whether it’s Mara Jade or not) must be white.  If you reason is “Mara is a red head”, then I welcome you to the wonderful world of wigs and hair dye.  This goes beyond the Sequel Trilogy and the Skywalker/Solo clan though.  Clearly, the stories being told in this universe have long since moved past only focusing on Han/Luke/Leia.  Stories set 1000 years before the Battle of Yavin or 200 years afterwards don’t have to be headlined by just white humans.  Create a compelling enough character and the readers or audience will connect with her or him regardless of what race or species or gender she or he happens to be.  That’s the mark of a good character and a good writer.

Sci-Fi is for men so the main characters should be men.
No.  Get out.  There are plenty of women who like and love Star Wars and other science fiction and fantasy properties.  And yes, they even read comic books.  In fact, two-thirds of the Tosche Station staff is female.  The recently published Into the Void featured a female protagonist and made the New York Times Best Seller list.  This is an antiquated myth and I won’t give it any more time.

Alien make up is elaborate and will take up too much time and money from the budget.
When you look at all the elaborate make up jobs done on extras and background characters throughout the Prequel Trilogy, this argument loses any of its punch.  If that’s not enough for you, take a look at the X-men films.  If they can go through all of that effort for Mystique then there’s no reason why Disney can’t do it for Star Wars.  Also?  This is Disney we’re talking about.  I think they can find money in the budget.

Audiences can’t connect with heroes who don’t look like them.
Ha.  Yeah, no.  I refer you to the point I made above. The idea that people can only connect with characters who look like this is absurd.  That is not to say that the Star Wars creators should continue to put forth main white male heroes though but rather that they should strive for diversity when it comes to casting these roles and focus creating well rounded characters. Make your characters compelling and people will like them and connect with them.  I promise you that white men are just as capable of cheering for a black female character in a story as Asian women are capable of cheering for the white male hero.

 

At the end of the day, Star Wars deserves to be a saga with more than one main female character per Trilogy and it deserves to be a saga where children of all races can look at the screen and not feel isolated because they don’t see any heroes who look like them.  These are films that should past the Bechdel Test with flying colors and these are films that should present a picture of a racially diverse group of heroes.  The Expanded Universe novels should take notes from books like Into the Void and Darth Plageuis and the MedStar duology and offer more leading roles for female and for alien characters and the books should present more than just heterosexual relationships.  Jane Espenson is absolutely right.  Why bother telling a science-fiction story if you’re only going to keep this world’s rules but add in space ships?  That’s not only a boring galaxy but it takes some of the marvel out of the genre.

Bring in some much needed diversity to the tales of Star Wars.  The audience is there.  The audience will appreciate it.  Become the saga where anyone can be a hero regardless of race, gender, or species because that’s the diverse sort of leading cast that this story both needs and deserves.

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