The biggest piece of Star Wars news from this year’s D23 Expo was the reveal of the rest of the Rogue One cast as well as a first look at all of them in costume. Like the rest of the Star Wars blogosphere I was extremely excited by the news and immediately set to over-analyze every scrap of it. My first thought was “wow, what a multicultural cast!” Followed shortly after that was “…but why is Felicity Jones apparently the only woman?” It seems once again that Star Wars fans are being asked to choose between ethnic diversity and gender parity.
The original trilogy movies are, frankly, lily white and heavily male. Leia is the only woman with a significant presence across the three movies and Lando’s the only significant nonwhite character. The prequel trilogy fares a little better, with the addition of strong secondary characters such as Mace Windu or Bail Organa (both male) and Shmi and various handmaidens (all white). But the fact remains: a Star Wars character can apparently be either nonwhite or nonmale…but not both.
Star Wars, like nearly every other blockbuster franchise, has a diversity problem. It is overwhelmingly white, male, straight, and (presumably) cis-gendered and there’s no shortage of thinkpieces discussing representation in a galaxy far far away. Tosche Station even took the time to list out every single woman with a speaking role in the movies, and while a similar list does not currently exist for people of color I am willing to bet it would be similarly short. But what’s even more depressing is combining those lists and looking at the representation of women of color.
Ayesha Dharker, who played Queen Jamillia in Attack of the Clones, is the woman of color with the most screen time in the live action movies. Femi Taylor, who played Oola, clocks in at number two. Obviously this will probably change come December and Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata hits our screens (though this is somewhat undercut by Lupita appearing via motion capture and not as herself), but it’s still a staggeringly low number.
The frustrating thing is that this lack of diversity is completely arbitrary because there is no contextual reason for it. There’s no reason that the cast of Rogue One couldn’t switch out some of the men with women and still maintain its current multiculturalism. There’s no reason Han Solo couldn’t have been black or Latino or East Asian or any number of nonwhite ethnicities. When you have a completely fictionalized universe then anything goes when it comes to representation. It’s not “adding diversity for the sake of diversity.” It’s removing homogeneity for the sake of realism.
And of course, all this discussion is only focusing on the intersection of race and (binary) gender. If you widen the scope to include LGBT+, it’s still dismal. Lords of the Sith gives us Moff Mors, an Imperial officer still mourning the death of her wife. The Legacy of the Force series gives us Medrit Vasur and Goran Beviin, married male Mandalorians. Juhani is a lesbian romance option in Knights of the Old Republic and there’s a small handful of same-gender romances in the Star Wars: The Old Republic expansions. That’s it, unless you count fan theories, and technically only Moff Mors is canon.
And here’s the thing: Lucasfilm can afford to take a chance on casting outside usual channels. Star Wars as a franchise is its own selling point. Even The Phantom Menace, which pop culture has deemed the worst of the Star Wars movies, flirted with $1 billion worldwide during its initial release, and smashed box office records left and right. Attack of the Clones, which is the lowest-grossing Star Wars movie when adjusted for inflation, was still a huge financial success and is one of the top 100 grossing movies of all time. Lucasfilm could cast wooden planks with painted-on smiley faces and they’d probably still reap in a huge box office profit. What Lucasfilm and Disney should be doing is using the safety of the Star Wars franchise to cast women of all ethnicities as well as men of often underrepresented ethnicities.
And thankfully, the franchise is making steps in that direction. Based on marketing, Rey, Finn, and Poe are shaping up to be the main trio of the sequel trilogy, which would mean that for the first time ever the main heroes of a Star Wars movie do not include a white male. The Rebels TV show gives us a crew that is entirely nonwhite (and includes more than one main female character to boot). Rae Sloane is quickly becoming a fan favorite in the books and hopefully will continue to make appearances in future material. And, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the star of Rogue One is a woman and the rest of the cast makes this probably the most multicultural Star Wars cast we’ve seen. These characters shouldn’t be discounted, not by a long shot. A step forward is still a step forward, even if it seems to be moving at a snail’s pace. But it’s important that as fans we continue to push Star Wars to do better because it’s the only way to change the status quo.