About one and a half years ago, we got the first cast picture for Rogue One, and the general consensus (myself included) was celebration of the ethnic diversity, followed almost immediately by dismay at the heavily male cast. But after the first trailer surprised us all with the appearance of Mon Mothma I was hopeful for Rogue One and optimistic that there would be more women. Unfortunately, my fears were proven right when I finally sat down in the theater to watch the movie and it turned out to be a pretty big sausage fest. An ethnically diverse (and quite attractive) sausage fest, yes, but still a sausage fest.
It’s disappointing because I had high hopes for a movie whose cast represented a range of countries and ethnicities. I was hoping it would continue in the thread of The Force Awakens and make a concerted effort to show a wide range of women as well; I’ve written before on the lack of women of color in Star Wars and I was hoping Rogue One would prove me wrong. But it goes to show that allyship in one area doesn’t always translate to allyship in another. We should definitely celebrate when Star Wars does well. But we should also accept that it will make mistakes…and as fans we should hold it accountable when it does.
It’s hard to admit when things we love aren’t as perfect as we’d like them to be. I’ve found this to be especially with something like Star Wars, where people tend to structure their entire identity around the fandom. So I understand wanting to rationalize away the flaws rather than admit that our favored franchise didn’t put its best foot forward. And there’s been a rash of rationalizations as of late: Leia’s slave bikini is empowering because she uses it to kill Jabba. Padmé didn’t die of a broken heart, Palpatine actually drained her life essence to save Anakin. Rogue One doesn’t show a lot of women in the Rebellion because they were trying to be faithful to how it looked in A New Hope.
But, frankly, I find this apologetic attitude is harmful because all it does is enforce the status quo. If we keep making excuses for missteps then nothing will change. I’d rather call it out and hold my media accountable in the hopes that it learns from past mistakes. After all, the decision to make Phasma a woman happened around the same time the fandom was criticizing the TFA cast for being majority male and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I want to see a Star Wars movie that has the diversity of Rogue One, but also has an equal number of men and women. After all, there were no U-wings in 1977 either; why then should we accept the lack of women because “that’s how it was then?”
Two movies with a female lead are great, but it’s troubling that they’re still surrounded by men. Leia was a groundbreaking character when she first appeared, but it’s also not 1977 anymore. We should be calling for more women in narratively significant positions. And it’s also not good that so far every single main female character is white. We should be calling for women of color who appear in more than one scene and have more than a handful of lines. Why couldn’t Lyra have been the brilliant scientist instead of Galen (which would’ve been an excellent opportunity for a much-needed mother/daughter story)? Even Krennic could have just as easily been a WoC. We don’t know much about the Han Solo movie right now, but based on the (admittedly limited) casting info, I worry that it’s going down the same route of one girl to a bunch of guys (who are mostly white).
Diversity is a conversation we need to keep having. Representation is not a bingo card, where you have to tick off boxes to “win;” it’s more of a sliding scale. It’s not just about how many minorities you have represented but about how they’re used as well. And just because you do well in one area doesn’t mean you get a pass for floundering in another. Rogue One was the most racially diverse Star Wars movie we’ve yet seen, and that is incredibly awesome. But by my own count it only had eight female characters who spoke, among dozens of men (and only two of them were in more than one scene). It’s awesome that we’ve got female-led Star Wars movies, but when all your main female characters are white then that’s a problem. And in the forty years of the Star Wars franchise, we have yet to see LGBT+ representation on the big screen (and explicitly called such; sorry Baze and Chirrut).
And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way because we’ve SEEN a Star Wars galaxy that better represents the world and people around us. The books, comics, and Rebels TV show have been blowing it out of the water when it comes to showing a vibrant and diverse galaxy. We see women. We see people of color. We see prominent women of color (one of whom is now heading her own comic series). We see LGBT+ characters (including Eleodie Maracavanya, the franchise’s first nonbinary character in Legends or canon). And we see characters who fit into more than one of the above categories, thus giving the GFFA a developed and intersectional view of diversity. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the movies are still lagging behind. Great as the expanded universe is, it doesn’t have nearly the reach that the movies do and it’s frustrating that they still continue to play it safe.
I first wrote on Star Wars’ need for intersectionality back in 2015, and it’s still so very relevant now. We have to keep pushing this franchise we love to do better. The world is an incredibly divisive place nowadays, and showing people of all genders, all races, all orientations, all walks of life working together to fight the bad guys and save the day is an incredibly important message to send. Media influences how we see the world around us, and Star Wars is such a cultural juggernaut that I would argue it has an obligation to be at the forefront of diverse representation. In the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death, how many women came forward and cited Princess Leia as a formative character who helped them realize they could be whatever they wanted to be? Or what about the man who was ecstatically happy when he finally heard his native accent in Rogue One? We need to see ourselves as heroes and people to be admired and idolized, and Star Wars still has a ways to go.