Context is Everything: The Minority Report, Year One

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Not only was Force Friday our first big taste of the sequel era, it was almost the exact one-year anniversary of the release of A New Dawn—and thus, the new Star Wars canon (or NEU, as some are calling it but I refuse to). I celebrated A New Dawn‘s release by officially launching The Minority Report, Eleven-ThirtyEight’s loose ongoing series of diversity-focused articles by myself and others. While the tag has been a useful umbrella for a variety of pieces, up to and including new staff writer Sarah Dempster’s recent (and hugely popular) piece Star Wars’ Intersectionality Problem, as I originally envisioned it, the series’ main recurring feature would be a discussion of my longstanding diversity scoring system. Diversity scores, according to my initial conception, are quite simply the percentage of a story’s cast that is anything other than straight, white human men—WHMs, for short. In practice, though, they’ve become anything but simple.

To wit: on the whole, this first year of the new canon has been like a breath of fresh air. While A New Dawn‘s diversity score wasn’t exactly a mic drop, the series it led into, Star Wars Rebels, has been nothing short of miraculous. While there have been a fair amount of WHMs among its Imperial cast (and it could definitely use more women in this area) the main cast of heroes doesn’t contain a single one—as confirmed on this very site by Pablo Hidalgo. Their ranks of our heroes have grown since the premiere to include aliens like Old Joh, Tseebo, and of course, Ahsoka Tano, and people of color like Lando, Bail Organa, and Commander Sato (and soon, at least a few aging clones). For one of the most heavily child-facing elements of the franchise, Rebels is guaranteeing that the newest generation of Star Wars fans will finally have no shortage of heroes who look like them, and it’s been thrilling to see.

Beyond that, the novels have been a mixed bag—while Tarkin, featuring a huge cast composed largely of Imperials (including several from the films and the EU which weren’t necessarily James Luceno’s fault), has easily the lowest new canon score of 39, the rest of the adult novels have ranged from an okay 65 for Lords of the Sith (bolstered by lots of Twi’leks) to a phenomenal 87 for both Heir to the Jedi and Dark Disciple. Dark Disciple‘s score isn’t a huge surprise, spinning as it did out of The Clone Wars, which boasts a canon record score of 91. Heir to the Jedi, on the other hand—while not an immensely popular book among many fans—really shone in this area, including among its fairly small cast a great assortment of aliens in B- and C-list roles. In fact, the only named WHM in the book other than Luke himself is Bren Derlin, another OT film character—meaning Kevin Hearne managed the rare (if not, I don’t think, unprecedented) feat of writing an entire Star Wars novel without creating a single new WHM. Lords of the Sith, of course, while similarly controversial, introduced Moff Mors, the first canon LGBTQ character. After the reboot I made note of the fact that it had taken thirty years for the EU to finally give us a single gay couple, only for said couple to be wiped from continuity; it was a great sign, then, that the new canon managed to cut that deficiency in half in about seven months.

If this is an important subject to you, and if you’ve been following it for as long as I have, the last year has indeed felt like a monumental one for the cause of diversity, and a big improvement over the EU—so what it I told you the diversity scores were pretty much the same?

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Here’s the reality: the theme of this past year, in my experience, is that true excellence in diversity is way more complicated than any simple calculation could ever tell you. Above, you see the diversity scores for the six Star Wars films (average: 62), The Clone Wars (91), Star Wars Rebels (73, through “The Siege of Lothal”), the five adult novels released prior to Aftermath, and the first three books in the Servants of the Empire series. The average score of those eight books is 60; the average of the dozens of EU books I and others scored prior to the reboot was 67.

While the films have a lot of budgetary and logistical reasons for looking the way they do, especially the OT, books must be seen as the purest possible expression of the demographics of the GFFA—they’re pure imagination; no makeup, CGI or artist reference needed. This is the first time that I’ve had a decent amount of canon books to compare to the EU’s numbers, and sure enough, in a cold mathematical sense, they’re actually worse.

So what’s going on here? I had my first inkling that something troubling was happening when I read the first Servants of the Empire book, Edge of the Galaxy, last fall. While the main character himself (and his three family members, of course) was a person of color, the book featured no end of minor human characters in Zare’s school scenes and among the local Imperials. While once upon a time the books might have come with handy Dramatis Personae lists that would’ve allowed me to filter out a lot of the also-rans, they’ve fallen out of favor post-reboot, and besides, I made the decision early on that in order to be as accurate as possible I would derive my score from every named character in a story, no matter how minor.

I likewise made the decision long ago that characters of ambiguous race and species would be assumed to be white humans—it was a tough call even then, but I justified it by looking at the EU’s long, long history of taking characters who had been conceived ambiguously and eventually making them into white guys. Even outside of Star Wars there’s a lot of really troubling evidence that the typical white western reader will visualize characters as white unless you essentially buldgeon them over the head with evidence to the contrary. At the end of the day, I concluded that in real-world terms, an ambiguous male character was no different than an overt WHM and should be treated accordingly.

Make no mistake: this distinction was devastating for the Servants of the Empire series. The first two books only scored a 52, and the third, Imperial Justice, sunk down to a 46—the lowest canon score outside of Tarkin (though lest you think that SotE unfairly dragged down the other novels, note that those five on their own only average a 67—exactly the same as the old EU average).

sote-eotgIf you’re like me, this just doesn’t pass the smell test. Overall, the new stuff feels better, doesn’t it? How could that be? Well, in my opinion—and it’s just that—it’s because they are better. Much better, in fact; just in ways I couldn’t have conceived of several years ago when I started scoring books. Edge of the Galaxy doesn’t just happen to take place at a provincial school (galactically speaking) with few aliens, and the few alien kids in the book don’t just happen to get pushed to the sidelines—the actual story is about that. It’s a story about racism being introduced into a society veeerry slowly as a means of creating an us-vs-them mentality, and ultimately, creating a culture where even good-hearted people are compelled to go along with disagreeable policies because it could destroy their lives if they don’t. And as Servants of the Empire’s story progresses ever further into the Imperial system and Zare rises through the Academy’s ranks, it’s not just natural that the cast would become less diverse, it’s the whole point.

I started doing diversity scores during the Legacy of the Force series; at that time, the “mainstream” EU wasn’t much more diverse than SotE’s Empire; but worse than the fact that the Jedi Council had four or five WHMs on it was the fact that nobody seemed to notice. These were characters like Corran Horn and Kyp Durron whom we’d been living with for over a decade, and we just took for granted that they belonged there—and that their stories were the stories most worth telling. My scoring was a measure of desperation; a big neon sign flashing “LOOK AT THIS!! THIS IS BAD!!”

Servants of the Empire, while demographically even worse than Legacy of the Force (score: 58), is its own flashing neon sign. Imagine if in the middle of LotF Luke Skywalker had looked around the Jedi Council chamber and screamed “what the hell is going on here?! There are a million species in this galaxy and the Jedi Order is being run by the cast of Friends!” That’s what SotE is doing, except unlike LotF it’s doing it in an era where it’s canonically appropriate—the rise of the Empire—as opposed to horrifying. As this dawned on me over the course of the series’ first three books, I began to realize that this wasn’t working like I’d intended. Nevertheless, I sallied forth.

That was strike one. Strike two was Lords of the Sith. While a score of 65 is only bad in terms of how average it is, it presented yet another challenge to my strategy of counting ambiguous characters as WHMs: there were a crapload of Twi’leks in this thing. While the story actually made a point of mentioning the occasional human among Cham Syndulla’s Free Ryloth crew, for the most part it was every bit the provincial community that Lothal was. When an ambiguous Imperial character like Arim Meensa (whose gender isn’t even certain, let alone appearance) shows up, it’s pretty easy to lump them into the WHM box, but what about the dozen or so Free Ryloth operatives who get in a line or two and never come up again? One could never be sure, of course, but treating every one of them like a human in the context of the story Lords of the Sith was telling just plain felt ridiculous.

And that brings me to Aftermath: the book where I just said fuck it.

While A New Dawn remains my favorite book of the new canon, like I said before, it wasn’t exactly a diversity mic drop. Aftermath is unquestionably a mic drop. So sprawling and in-your-face diverse is the cast of Aftermath that it doesn’t even feel like the same galaxy we’ve been living in all these years; rather, it feels like the galaxy we should have been living in—the one we saw in the Mos Eisley cantina, in Jabba’s Palace, in the Republic Senate. At the same time, I’ve been doing this long enough now that I can smell a disappointing score coming a mile away—and I smelled one here, simply because Chuck Wendig didn’t seem overly concerned with describing many characters’ skin tones. Based on my admittedly fast read-through, the only details I picked up at all were a few mentions of Rae Sloane’s already-established dark brown skin and one mention of Temmin Wexley being “tan”.

But the same way I had philosophical problems with giving Servants of the Empire poor diversity scores when its lack of diversity was a major theme of the story, effectively punishing Aftermath—the book that made Rae Sloane the face of the Empire and made a supporting character out of a battle droid and single-handedly increased the population of established LGBTQ characters sixfold—because it didn’t go out of its way to describe the skin colors of each of its ninety-ish characters, many of whom are only around for a few pages, was just a bridge too far for me. If diversity scores were meant as a wake-up call to the franchise, mission goddamn accomplished: it’s awake.

So, what happens now? I’m not entirely sure. The defining feature of my plan going forward is to not have a plan; I’m certainly going to keep talking about diversity, but I feel like a threshold has been crossed. Rather than asking how diverse is this story?, I’m going to pivot somewhat and attempt to focus more on how effective is this story’s use of diversity? What does it do well and what could it be doing better? Certainly the last year’s worth of books haven’t been perfect. Servants of the Empire, despite my high opinion of it, suffered as much due to a lack of female students and cadets as its lack of aliens and obvious POCs. To some extent this seems to come from a decision made by Rebels not to depict any female cadets in “Breaking Ranks”, Zare Leonis’s debut episode, which itself may have been a simple matter of limited character models. That doesn’t mean it’s not a flaw, though, and it’s something to keep an eye on in the final book, The Secret Academy, and especially in season two of Rebels.

In fact, since I still have all my handy diversity notes from the last year (and Wookieepedia is slowly but surely beefing up its coverage of the canon books), I may revisit their demography in the future with an eye to gender parity in particular. That seems like it’d be worth investigating, but it’s too soon to say in what form.

Heir_to_the_JediWhat I can say for sure is that diversity scores aren’t going away entirely; I still think they have value, if only to highlight the occasional genuine disappointment like Tarkin or unexpected gem like Heir to the Jedi. The latter in particular: for a book that was met with such a resounding “meh”, it really did a great job in terms of both species and human diversity, and if I hadn’t made a point of scoring it I don’t know that I’d even have noticed. I’ll definitely do a full-cast score for The Force Awakens once those details are available, and all the future movies; Rogue One looks likely to have interesting ramifications for the racial makeup of the A New Hope-era Rebellion, which is something that’s needed fixing for a long time now. Hell, if the wook’s coverage of the new books ends up being as thorough as its coverage of the old ones, it may well be a simple matter to check back in next fall and do another year’s worth of scoring all at once.

What I will not be doing anymore is taking notes myself while reading. No more searching the books’ text for the word “skin” to see if I missed any descriptors. No more fretting over whether counting Auntie Nags means I also have to count a one-page appearance by an astromech somewhere else. No more feeling forced to exclude Sabine and Zeb from SotE’s counts because the POV characters don’t know their names. It’s exhausting and distracting, and it increasingly feels like a waste of time.

On the other hand, I would hate for someone to come away from this thinking I’ve given up, or worse, that I’ve declared victory and moved on. I haven’t. Diversity is still a crucial subject, and no matter how good this franchise gets at it, raising awareness of it will never stop being necessary. But I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and what I can’t abide is wasting time fighting old fights. When arguably the most prominent adult Star Wars novel in a decade includes three stellar gay characters and establishes two more just for funsies, the franchise has spoken. To continue debating it is to acknowledge that there is a debate, but there isn’t—there’s just the right side, and the relics who aren’t worthy of our attention. What we should be doing is figuring out what the next fight is: non-binary characters? Pansexuals? How should Star Wars, a setting with impossibly advanced medical technology, deal with characters of varying physical ability and mental health? Come to think of it, how should they deal with trans people? Would that even be a thing anymore, or is their technology able to detect and correct gender dysphoria in utero? And if so, is that even a good idea, or is it better to present trans characters as we currently experience them for the sake of representation?

These are fascinating questions, and I’d be lying if I said I had clear opinions on all of them, let alone on how Star Wars should answer them. So let’s talk about them instead. We scored a big-ass touchdown with Aftermath, but that doesn’t mean we won the game—it means it’s time to move the goalposts.

11 comments

  1. Bria says:

    “Mike Cooper’s relationship status with Easily Determining Diversity in Novels has changed to ‘It’s Complicated'”.

  2. Eric Brown says:

    Caveat: Now, I know when it comes to morality, I’m one of those old dinosaurs on the “wrong” side – but I also understand that this is my own approach to morality and I don’t expect society to ape it. Let society do what it will – and let’s not preach at each other unless we request a sermon. Live and let live – that’s my goal. Let me enjoy my Star Wars without getting a sermon and I’ll let you enjoy yours without preaching one to you, and we can all get along. That’s my hope, that’s my fear.

    With that preface, I loved how Aftermath dealt with sexuality. First of all – there is the lesbian couple — just presented as a simple reality. That’s how it is. No hand wringing or finger waving – there is it.

    The best, though, is Sinjir’s “reveal” – because it turned so many sexual stereotypes on their head in a humorous way. Jas, the woman, is the aggressor – and when rebuffed, is it a race thing? Nope, it’s an orientation thing. Just absolutely beautiful – it played off of assumptions and misconceptions multiple times. And again – no preaching, no finger waving – just reality. And even a sometimes humorous reality at that.

    Another thing that I appreciate was that all the characters in the book were flawed – every single one… so there was no artificial “ideal” character – there was no glorifying of one specific check box in the diversity list – but rather, we all are different and we all got problems. There was diversity and commonality – which I highly appreciated.

    (Although Lost Stars was a better book and well worth the read, just in case you, like I, had typically avoided Star Wars YA stuff because of… well, what the old Star Wars YA stuff was like.)

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      As a man who, IIRC, is literally a preacher, I think you can appreciate that I view visiting and reading my blog as tantamount to requesting a sermon. :)

      Re: Aftermath, I couldn’t agree more. That kind of stuff is what I mean when I say it feels like a threshold has been crossed. I think diversity tends to go through phases—first gay characters (for example) are tokens and stereotypes, then they’re one-note characters whose sexuality is their defining characteristic (which I actually saw someone accuse Sinjir of being, despite the fact that you don’t even know his sexuality until almost the end of the book!), and finally they’re a fully fleshed-out part of the world, with the same strengths and flaws everyone else has.

      Now that this is the field Star Wars is playing on, of course, this is the standard I’ll be holding them to—not just “how many [minority] characters are there?” but “how three-dimensional are they?” It’s an exciting place to be; I just hope the future material lives up to it.

      • Eric Brown says:

        Sinjir’s story is fantastically deep – he’s basically an SS officer on the run. His backstory is he was the ultimate twisted Imperial who becomes a drunk… and that’s the character of the four that is gay. Think about the confidence – the “we are past phase one” where basically it’s the seediest character who is gay. My gut reaction was to worry if there was going to be outcry that he wasn’t heroic enough. Naw — that’s who the character is – now let’s run with his story.

        Sexuality is an aspect of the characters now, and an important one, but not one that stereotypically defines them, nor one that can’t be applied to any sort of character. It’s interesting.

  3. Bria says:

    I live to crack terrible jokes in the 1138 comment section while still drinking my morning coffee.

  4. Al says:

    “I likewise made the decision long ago that characters of ambiguous race and species would be assumed to be white humans.”

    Shouldn’t they be left out of the equation? I don’t assume characters are hetrosexual, for example, until given evidence one way or another. For star wars, I don’t even assume a character is human unless it is stated. Maybe blank slate characters are a good way for the reader to completely imagine all their traits.

    Regarding the “really troubling evidence” this is just a blog post giving examples of racist twitter users. What percentage of hunger games post were like this?

    One of my friends has a saying “the plural of anecdotes isn’t evidence”. I’ll try to see if I can find any peer reviewed research tonight that sheds light on how people identify ambiguous individuals in literature.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Like I say in the piece, it wasn’t a simple decision to make, but it was made very intentionally. My reasoning is also explained in the piece, but I’d recommend reading this for a much more thorough examination of the original scoring system, and this for an examination of why ambiguity is no better than overt whiteness.

      Now, maybe you don’t agree—that’s fine, but it’s kind of moot point now, considering what this article in particular is actually saying, don’t you think?

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