Rogue One, Representation, and the Problem with Rationalizations

RogueOne

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.

captain-phasmaBut, 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).

doctor-aphraAnd 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.

19 comments

  1. darksapiens says:

    Regarding the excuse of “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”, one should take into account that in A New Hope they were all WHITE men. That is, once they show lots of different ethnicities among the rebels, they’ve already changed it from the way it was in 1977!

    So yeah… I call it “excuse” rather than “rationalization” because I don’t think it’s valid at all, I’m afraid.

    • Yeah, that’s another good point! It’s a pretty flimsy excuse no matter how you look at it. And also just generally….just because a 40 year old movie is heavily white and male doesn’t mean you have to replicate THAT aspect of it. We shouldn’t be limiting ourselves to how it was done in the past.

      And it’s all the more frustrating because the Rogue One novelization actually includes women in the Rebellion and Empire.

  2. Eric J. Brown says:

    I think the article is a bit overly harsh concerning Rogue One, or perhaps expecting a bit much. It was already groundbreaking in a few ways – the first spin-off film, new special effects with Tarkin, as well as the first “war movie”in Star Wars. That’s a lot to chew for one film.

    As for women’s representation – two of the senators were women and several of the pilots involved in the combat scenes were women as well. Those are egalitarian injections into the film.

    As for the main “squad” – well, it was a war film, and there are certain tropes that normally war films follow in their squad formation. Rogue One fell within those parameters rather well… and I don’t know whether expecting it to be not only the first Star Wars war film but also the first gender egalitarian or gender neutral war film is a realistic expectation.

    • darksapiens says:

      But just by looking at the background characters in The Force Awakens, Rogue One feels like a step backwards. Hence the frustration.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      Yeah, I noted elsewhere that not only does it not rise to TFA’s demographics, I don’t think it’s even on track with the low rate of women in real armed forces in the US and UK.

    • Eric Brown says:

      The thing is it’s not designed to mesh with the Force Awakens, which depicts a galaxy 40 years after a New Hope – it’s designed to mesh with a New Hope. That’s the comparison that ought to be made. In a New Hope do we see a single female in the Rebellion other than Leia? Not that I can think of. And of the pilots we see in ANH – they are all guys. Same with the crew of the Tantive IV. That’s just the boundaries that canon has established… and yet, in that canon framework we get multiple we get high level political decisions made by women, plus multiple women pilots.

      This is an intentional act on the writers part – and it’s one that if you want egalitarianism you ought to commend them for.

      • darksapiens says:

        But again, we don’t see any people of color in the Rebellion either, and they put lots in Rogue One. If we want to go with “That’s just the boundaries that canon has established”, then in Rogue One we should see more women than people of color in the Rebellion. It just doesn’t hold as justification for the lack of women in the film.

      • darksapiens says:

        And, you know, every single person who dies in Scarif could have been a woman and the film would still mesh well with A New Hope, since they would not have been around a few days later.

      • Eric Brown says:

        That is what seems to have happened with the pilots – most of them were in Blue Squad.

        But unless the directors and Disney are wanting to make a specific point about how we need to have women in combat… why would they do that? It cuts against the war film genre stereotypes, and while Star Wars is groundbreaking, that’s an incidental reality. The job of the films aren’t to directly push social boundaries – they are to make gobs and gobs of money. That means an appeal to as broad a base as you can find while upsetting as few people as you can (even if their reasons for being upset are regressive or whatever other label one wants to put on them).

        But instead of looking for the awesome, sweeping equality, I think having the additions that *were* there should be viewed as a gain… because there’s no (monetary) reason you had to have any additional women cast at all. They chose a smaller step that they thought was financially safe and that was somewhat progressive instead of making a giant progressive manifesto at the risk of politicizing the film in the midst of what is, let’s face it, an utterly divisive political period.

        And this is what I’d expect them to do… Poe and Finn probably aren’t going to ship — if there is going to be a homosexual relationship in the upcoming films it will be with a secondary set of characters… because that’s the (monetarily) safer way to incorporate that.

      • darksapiens says:

        Um… Remember when Marvel was doing what they thought was financially safe, and then, after people started being more vocal about it they decided to include more diversity and sales actually *increased*?

        I don’t think saying that we should complain less is consistent with the argument that they did what they did because it was financially safe. Precisely, complaining and being vocal about these things sends the message that it could actually be financially safe to improve those things too.

        Also, “don’t be mad at them, they’re just helping perpetuate the stereotypes you think are harmful” is a bit baffling, to be honest o_O

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        No one’s going to dispute that Lucasfilm is a business, but the financial-incentive argument is a tough framing to get behind—the cynical, financial explanation for RO’s racial demographics is that they wanted to boost the film’s performance in China, and instead it actually opened weaker than TFA did there, just like it did in the US. So does that mean they were wrong, and the lesson to learn from this is to stick to mostly white casts? Or does diversity serve as its own justification, and box office is a separate concern?

      • Eric Brown says:

        Can I ask a question: How is having a infantry that is primarily male promoting a stereotype? Is not being intentionally diverse, or intentionally promoting a diversity I’d like to see as I’d like to see it, stereotyping?

        And to Mike’s questions: Diversity may be a concern (that’s up to Disney – whether they are right or wrong) – but box office will be the main concern. As for the “lesson” — I think you’d be off to compare the RO box office to TFA — I don’t think the industry was using TFA as the bar for expectations. As I recall, RO exceeded expectations.

        If anything I’d guess the lesson is make a movie with a good story and compelling visuals, and it will make money hand over fist — regardless of the categories the actors check off. I mean – would Rogue One have been any less compelling a film if Jyn were John or would it have been any more compelling if Galen was Gail? As the issue and the intent of the film wasn’t race or gender or anything that – the race and gender of the characters could be changed with little effect on the financial bottom line at all.

        (Side note: I think I did see a female trooper in the Scariff troops – the very back left after they boarded the ship… but maybe not.)

      • darksapiens says:

        “How is having a infantry that is primarily male promoting a stereotype? Is not being intentionally diverse, or intentionally promoting a diversity I’d like to see as I’d like to see it, stereotyping?”

        Stereotype: Being a soldier is a MAN’s job!
        Reality: Look at the Kurds fighting against oppression in conditions similar to those of the Rebel Alliance.

        “As the issue and the intent of the film wasn’t race or gender or anything that – the race and gender of the characters could be changed with little effect on the financial bottom line at all.”

        Precisely.

        And regarding the side not… I don’t think it counts if you have to be extra observant and ever freeze frame and go back to be sure whether it was a woman or not. A lot of the random male soldiers got close-ups.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        ^ What he said. Many characters could swap genders without hurting the film, but men using that argument to justify or dismiss the lack of women is like a rich man lecturing a poor man on the sin of materialism.

      • Eric Brown says:

        If the stereotype is that fighting is a man’s job, I don’t know how much Rogue One reinforces that – especially as Jyn is specifically stated to be the best soldier Saw had – it’s not like everyone says, “Oh, Jyn, don’t trouble yourself, we’ll take care of this for you little lady.” No – she gets called “little sister” by Baze, but that’s not used as a term of exclusion but inclusion.

        If there is a stereotype that was avoided it wasn’t women in combat but women getting killed in combat — the men get the tar shot out of them. We don’t see that with the women — you have the one U-Wing pilot say that they are going down, but that’s it. The slain are all male… you don’t see any dead women.

        That actually might be the bigger hurdle — not having the women fight (bad-ass women are a trope) – but how often do you have films where the women die horrible combat deaths?

        But thank you for your reply.

      • darksapiens says:

        If you only have one prominent fighting woman, and especially if they state that she’s exceptional in some regard, the message is still that it’s not normal for a woman to be in that position, while men can be just regular fighters and still be very common among the troops. Still gives the same message: being a soldier is a man’s job, unless you’re exceptionally good at it. The woman has to work much harder to justify her inclusion in the group, because it’s not considered that she fits in it otherwise.

        If there was a bigger fraction of women in the Alliance as a whole, the message would be that women can do that job too, and it’s just that some are better at it than others–like what happens with the men.

      • Eric Brown says:

        The question then is this: Is it “normal” for women to be in combat roles in the military?

        If normal means “typical” – then typically in the US and UK, that’s not typical. It hadn’t even been allowed until recently and I don’t know if it is implemented.

        If normal means “what should be allowed and regular” (as in normalizing) – then there are folks who are arguing that women should be included in combat roles.

        Or to put it this way – is the lack of women troopers objectionable because it inaccurately reflects reality, or because it does not help to create a desired reality?

        I think the complaint is stronger if it is the former, and weaker if it is the latter because the latter requires a mutual agreement of what is the desired reality.

        +++++++++++

        This is not to say that a war film shouldn’t give a picture of a desired reality. That’s one of their main functions. There is a long history too of war movies giving a desired reality – World War II films usually included a “multi-ethnic” battalion – meaning there would be an Italian, and Irishman, a Jew, a farm boy — it was creating an image of “this is America” (while leaving out people of color). However, that wasn’t the historical reality – just with the way the units were formed in the actual war, they tended to consist of folks from the same areas and regions and were thus, normally homogeneous. And that’s American war films — WWII films from other countries presented different desired realities that may or may not have lined up with historical facts.

    • John says:

      On a different tack, I think it is important to distinguish between those tropes that are essential to a war film qua war film, and those tropes that are simply incidental to many war films but not essential to the genre. In my mind, what is essential to war films is the presence of armed conflict at the core of the narrative; other aspects usually associated with war films are in fact common tropes that are nonetheless tangential to the genre of the film. (In this regard, I’m not sure I agree that Rogue One is really more of a “war movie” than other Star Wars movies, but that is a discussion for another time).

      It is true that many previous war films have featured all or nearly-all male casts. However, almost all war films also take place on Earth; they almost all take place in the 20th century (some notable exceptions notwithstanding); and they almost all have entirely human casts. (The overwhelming majority produced by Hollywood also feature white men in leading roles). If we go by these “usual” aspects of war films, then Rogue One cannot be considered part of the genre – it takes place on alien worlds, a long time ago, with the Rebel Fleet led by a fish-man (and a Rebel strike team organized by a Latino actor).

      Of course, Rogue One is still a war movie – the conduct and cost of armed conflict is at the very core of its narrative. The other things – setting, casting, plot elements – are incidental to the film’s genre identity. Given that not every common trope in war movies is genre-essential, though, I am skeptical that Rogue One’s intended genre somehow dictates its casting choices, including the gender of the characters.

      For my part, the lack of female characters was not a significant drawback to the movie – I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it was (X-wings vs. AT-ATs! pew pew!). That said, I also respect the fact that many viewers were bothered by the movie’s lack of female inclusion (especially given the girl-power tone of much of the marketing buzz). My enjoyment of the movie would not have been affected in any way if, say, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi had been women, and/or if Lyra Erso had been the polymath genius saboteur instead of Galen. Nor do I think that different casting choices would have somehow threatened the movie’s identity as a “war film.” As such, I see no reason why Lucasfilm shouldn’t cast more women in leading roles…

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