Diversity & Science Fiction (Part II: A Case study of Star Wars)

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In July of 1977 the LA Times published an article entitled “The Great White Void” by Raymond St. Jacques, a black actor and director. In it James critiqued the fact that while science fiction was supposed to be free “from worry about acceptive norms of our present racist society”. But instead, popular science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Logan’s Run and Star Wars were nearly devoid of African-American actors and actresses. In the weeks ahead the Times would publish letters to the editor in response of Jacques. One of these was by a reader, Linda Buzzwell, who added on to Jacques observations, saying: “there are no women pilots, soldiers, or other professionals” in Star Wars. Despite this, Buzzwell had seen the film five times. The same number, as it happens, as Jacques.

There is a central tension here, a paradox. We look towards films and other entertainment to reflect our social values, and are angry when they do not. But films and other entertainments are traditionally seen as products, creations of certain businesses that finance their making. And, under capitalism, the only responsibility of most companies is to make as much money as possible, social values be damned. Under this logic if one disapproves of a movie’s social politics the big thing to do is to boycott the film. Unfortunately the big winners when that happens tend to be social conservatives. Therefore studios try and tread lightly around ‘controversial issues’.

To see how that mindset influenced Star Wars have a look at these polls from the 1970s and 80’s about blacks, women, and LGB people:

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Yikes. These prejudices were not mere backlashes to the turbulent 60’s, but instead deep rooted. For example, over twenty five years after the Allies had liberated the death camps in Europe, a substantial minority of Americans held openly Anti-Semitic views:

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Given this environment, and its capitalistic imperatives, it is unsurprising that the first Star Wars lacked People of Color, or women outside of Princess Leia. Interestingly in one of the early drafts of Star Wars, the character that would eventually become Luke was an eighteen year old woman. What’s more, in Return of the Jedi women fighter pilots were filmed attacking the death star, but were cut in post-production.

Overall though the Star Wars trilogy perhaps did better then its contemporaries in regards to these issues, Leia was no mere passive sex object, and Lando ended up subverting the “black criminal” stereotype by leading the heroic Second Death Star attack run.

But then, the prequels came along and opened another can of worms. There is a flaw in thinking of movies only as a capitalistic instrument, movies are first and foremost art. We don’t thing of Dr. Strangelove as a Columbia Pictures film, but as a Kubrick film, The Hurt Locker as a Bigelow picture not of Summit Entertainment, The Dark Knight is Nolan’s, not Warner Brothers. And while companies may be capitalist cogs, the auteur’s are not. They deserve to be roasted when the have chance to have, or the chance to force diversity on the studios, and they don’t.

And George Lucas deserves your critique, because times had changed, but he had not. 1999 was not 1977. The Original Trilogy had grossed over 2.6 Billion in 2016 dollars, and by making one of the savviest deals in movie history, he had won his independence from the studio system. James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens had shown the audiences didn’t mind a female action lead or a diverse cast. Any new Star Wars were nearly guaranteed to print money. Lucas had a pretty big stick if he wanted to swing it. Instead we got this:

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Lucas basically copied himself. There was one black man, and one strong woman. (Also Jango Fett was part Maori). But somehow it was worse. Offensive ethnic stereotypes with Jar-Jar, Watto, and the Neimoidians. And Padme as a character completely devolved over the course of the three films. It was a total failure on nearly every level.

So Star Wars ended. Until it didn’t, snatched up by Disney. Here’s where it gets interesting. Disney, as corporate behemoth, is hardly on the side of the angels. They hired J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, two white men. as director and writer respectively. Now at the time Disney bought Lucasfilm it was under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, so it wasn’t an all male dominated affair. Kennedy is an exception that proves a rule, the Hollywood system is to a degree so rigged against women (and people of color) that the Equal Opportunity Commission opened an an investigation for gender discrimination. They are simply not given a chance. Kennedy, as one of the very lucky, picked Abrams for the job. After Arndt had to leave, Abrams became co-writer along Lawrence Kasdan, scribe of Empire Strikes Back. Kennedy had made a great choice, outside of perhaps Joss Whedon, there was no man more willing and able to bring women to the screen. Abrams had created both Felicity and Alias. TV shows with women at their center. And with Lost he had helped create a diverse cast, filling it with not just African Americans, but Asians and Muslims from the Middle East. (Not to get to off topic, but there were plans for even more diversity, which the network spiked.) Abrams could think outside of his while maleness, and he proved it again by creating Rey and Finn as main characters. He and Kasdan reacted to criticism of a gender unbalanced cast by changing Captain Phasma to a woman (and got Gwendoline Christie, always get Gwendoline Christie) and included women and people of color as stormtroopers and fighter pilots. According to special features commentary, in the First Order assault of Jakku female stormtroopers were among those charging down the ramp, even if one couldn’t tell. Over thirty-five years later the questions Jacques and Buzzwell were finally answered by Star Wars. Abrams had a big stick and actually decided to swing it.

There is still progress to be made. Abrams promised that LGBT characters would be coming soon (but corporate by squash it). Rogue One showed that female leads were here to stay and added am even more diverse cast , even while it continued some troubling trends. Overall though Star Wars’ massive box office success has put to bed the idea that a diverse film can’t be a hit (therefore blasting a gaping hole in studios’ “but we need to make money!” excuse.) The fact that one the biggest fandom “shipsis a poly triad, and the fact that people are pretty much okay with that, is fascinating. Episode VII has shown a way forward for diversity in the movies (and science fiction.)

(Originally Published on 4/9/16)