I honestly cannot recall a time when Star Wars was not a force in my life, surrounding me and binding my universe together. The film that would eventually be known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was the movie that christened the first video player our family ever owned. That was in the early ‘80s.
Because of this, I was a bit surprised when, in a recent interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, the director of The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams, observed that Star Wars was primarily “a boys’ thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping this could be a movie that mothers could take their daughters to as well.”
Maybe it was primarily a boys’ thing once upon a time, but Star Wars never felt like that to me. Quite the opposite. Star Wars changed my earliest ideas of what it meant to be a princess by introducing Leia Organa. Though I was probably seven or eight when I finally saw A New Hope, it was not lost on me that Leia effectively saved herself and her companions when Han and Luke’s rescue mission went sideways. Leia wasn’t a helpless, captured beauty. She had agency and commanded respect.
Thus, I never thought of Star Wars as being a boys’ thing. Then again, being a Black, female geek, I am used to being considered an oddity within a subculture that is largely white, very male, and can also be possessive and exclusionary.
In the years following Star Wars, girl geeks who loved Leia would draw inspiration from other franchises and their heroines. Aliens gave us Ripley. The Terminator movies beefed up Sarah Connor and for a while, every teenage girl I knew wanted her defined arm muscles. Television would fuel girl power within whole generations of young women through characters like Xena, Buffy, Faith, Sydney Bristow and others.
What about Black girl geeks? We had Star Trek’s Uhura. No offense, Trek lovers; Nichelle Nichols is amazing, truly. But Uhura always struck me as part of the adventure, and far less of an adventuress.
Black girls who read comic books – an even rarer breed when I was a kid – found other powerful role models. The X-Men’s Storm is often cited as a fan favorite, but we also had characters like Vixen and heroines of more underground titles such Martha Washington, a co-creation of Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller. (White guys.)
Long before I walked into a comic book store, my first geek girl love affair was with Leia…but that may be because there really weren’t any other women to look up to in those first three films. Vulture’s YouTube compilation of all of the moments of dialogue from every other female character in the original three Star Wars shows us a sobering truth: In the 386 minutes of the first three films’ total running, women who are not Leia Organa are featured in a whopping 63 seconds of dialogue. That includes all of the lines spoken by Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma, and a nameless rebel on Hoth.
To be fair, the compilation left out the gibberish spoken by Jabba the Hutt’s go-go dancer Oola, who fought back against her captor before he dumped her in a pit with his Rancor monster. So let’s call it 70 seconds.
By the way, underneath that green greasepaint, Oola was played by a Black actress, Femi Taylor.
So Abrams’ course correction when it comes to more equal gender representation in the Star Wars universe is worth celebrating, to a point. Carrie Fisher is back as Leia, and she’s far from alone. Not only is newcomer Daisy Ridley one of The Force Awakens’ central characters, a self-sufficient desert dweller named Rey, but she’s joined by Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie as an Officer in the evil First Order forces – a role that originally was supposed to go to a man – and Lupita Nyong’o, as a character revealed only recently, Maz Kanata.
It was Nyong’o’s casting that excited me the most, because that makes her the first Black actress to hold a major role in any Star Wars film. Black and brown women have played significant parts in the franchise’s expanded universe, which includes novels, comic book series and video games. This includes a recent revelation from the official comic released earlier this year that Han Solo had a dark-skinned wife. (That’s right. Look it up.)
There were even two Black female Jedi Council members in the prequels. Don’t worry if you don’t remember them. I barely did.
So I was a little disappointed when the official poster for The Force Awakens was revealed, and I didn’t see Nyong’o featured. Or, I should say, I didn’t see a Black woman’s face. I saw a teeny-tiny orange one, right next to R2-D2.
Let’s review. Number of Black actresses featured in memorable roles in Star Wars? I can recall four, if you count those silent Jedi in the prequels. Number of Black actresses that are recognizable as Black actresses onscreen, in the franchise? Two. And we don’t see much of them.
Now, surely some Star Wars fans will wonder why this so important. At least Nyong’o has a central role with actual dialogue, and as far as we know she’s not being sexualized and murdered by a gigantic worm.
Well, there’s a big difference between hearing a respected actress of color’s voice in a role, and seeing her in it. It’s the same difference as knowing that James Earl Jones gives Darth Vader his voice, but when his mask came off in Jedi, there was an old white guy beneath it.
Girl geeks of color are increasingly becoming our own force to be reckoned with, in spite of the fact that we don’t see much representation of ourselves within the genres we love. We have influence in social media, thanks to passionate and thoughtful women like Jamie Broadnax, creator of Black Girl Nerds, and Girl Gone Geek founder Jamila Rowser. Girl geeks exchange ideas online and call B.S. on fellow geeks, male and female, who seek to exclude or shame nerds of other ethnicities as they engage in cosplay and push back against the idea that fantasy worlds are, by their nature, homogenous.
Seeing ourselves onscreen means that powerful voices in entertainment also acknowledge that we have a place in their idealized universe, and in a subset of our own.
The Star Wars universe has done its part to be more inclusive these days. Look at the fact that Abrams has set up Finn, played by Black British actor John Boyega, as the presumed inheritor to Luke Skywalker’s legacy in this portion of the story. That’s not only acknowledging the fact that our culture is changing, but that humans of all colors have a place in this universe, where the main struggle is against tyranny.
Minority inclusion also makes good business sense. A big reason that our family went to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater was because Billy Dee Williams joined the story as Lando Calrissian. We were far from alone.
In the early ‘80s, a Black man having a prominent role in any box-office blockbuster about a tale from long ago in a galaxy far, far away was gigantic – much bigger than the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu in the prequels. (It also bears mentioning that the original Battlestar Galactica beat the Star Wars franchise to market on the diversity front; the first Boomer and Colonel Tigh were both played by African American actors. Fox sued the makers of Galactica back then, claiming it was ripping off Star Wars.) Today minorities command a much larger share of buying power than they did more than 35 years ago, and are willing to spend more of their disposable income on entertainment.
Minority casting in The Force Awakens hasn’t been entirely welcomed with open arms. Although Boyega’s casting makes sense to anyone who has seen his other work – if you haven’t treated yourself to Attack the Block, drop what you are doing and rectify that now – his prominence in the first trailers for The Force Awakens gave rise to the racist hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII in October. Perpetuators of the hashtag alleged that Boyega’s casting was against canon, saying that stormtroopers can’t be Black. At its ugliest, some likened it “white genocide.”
A number of sources suggest that troll provocateurs at 4chan launched the hashtag to bait the media into making a fuss out of a manufactured issue, while other news outlets traced the hashtag back to supremacist Twitter feeds. Regardless of the source, it’s disgusting. The Force Awakens will roll on with or without them, thanks much.
At this point, it also looks like it may roll along without showing a lot of Black female faces in this universe. In fairness, I can’t confirm that; like millions of people around the galaxy, at the time of the article’s publication I have not yet seen The Force Awakens. Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata may end up being one of the cooler characters in the new stories, with her own might and tremendous power. That may be. Maz also resembles a tangerine wearing goggles. It’s hard to get past that image on the poster.
This is just the first film of what will likely be many new chapters in the Star Wars universe. That means there will be plenty of time for those who create these tales to expand their vision even more broadly, as they write fresh twists in the destinies of beloved characters, old and new.
I still have hope.