The key to producing meaningful stories is creating characters that fans can identify with. Often, characters are relatable because of their identity, based on factors like gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Still, fans don’t need to have the same experiences as a character to relate to them. Inclusive characters are important to any story, and that goes doubly so for Star Wars, which has steadily become one of the most popular franchises of our day.
I’ve been a Star Wars fan for many years now. But I hesitate to say that the franchise has become as inclusive as it could be. Although Lucasfilm has cast women and people of color in starring roles, their characters lack the same significance at a story level. The problem is that within the Star Wars galaxy, human minorities don’t exist, and this prevents the saga’s films from examining subjects like diversity and inclusion.
Star Wars has come a long way since it first premiered in 1977, and it must continue its progress. To remain relevant in our social climate, the saga needs to amend the lack of identifiable minorities within its story. Here are the ways that Star Wars can provide minorities with a larger spotlight.
Minority Actors Aren’t Minority Characters
Without a doubt, Star Wars is making inroads in diversifying its casting. Last year, John Boyega (Finn) became the first black actor to receive a lead role in a saga film. Daisy Ridley (Rey) and Felicity Jones (Jyn Erso) became the first women to headline movies on their own. What’s more, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Diego Luna, and Riz Ahmed are among those who have proved that people of color belong in Star Wars.
As an Asian American, I was glad when Rogue One added two Chinese actors to its cast: Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen. Their respective roles, Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, have certainly increased Asian representation in Star Wars. Previously, Asian-influenced characters have mostly remained in the background and received limited roles. Examples include Commander Jun Sato (Keone Young) from the Rebels TV series and Admiral Statura (Ken Leung) from The Force Awakens.
However, there’s a problem with Star Wars that can’t be solved with inclusive casting alone. Yes, minority actors have gained lead roles. But technically, Asian characters don’t exist in Star Wars, and the same goes for other racial minorities. Unlike in Star Trek, Earth is absent from Star Wars, which makes it impossible to locate minorities within the franchise. It also hinders much-needed discussions about diversity.
Without an in-depth exploration of human culture, Star Wars can’t tell stories about what it means to be a minority. Terms like Asian, black, and Latinx don’t exist in Star Wars, which makes it harder for the saga to examine current social issues. I’d like to say that Star Wars finally has Asian protagonists thanks to Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, but that isn’t true because the word “Asian” isn’t part of the saga’s vernacular.
Human Races in Star Wars: Visible but Undefined
Minorities need to exist in Star Wars because we need stories about them. The problem is that the saga does have diversity and simply hasn’t explored it on a story level. Human races exist (based on varying skin tones, at least), but they lack identification. Dave Filoni, the supervising director of The Clone Wars TV series, even created a character named Nyx Okami who was meant to be Asian. Unfortunately, Lucasfilm ended The Clone Wars before it completed the episodes featuring Okame.
The planet Onderon is one of several missed opportunities to explore human culture in Star Wars. Onderon was the main setting of a story arc from The Clone Wars season five. The planet’s population is visibly diverse: Lux Bonteri is white, while King Ramsis Dendup and Steela and Saw Gerrera are black. Yet, the TV show never explored the history behind Onderon’s diversity. What kind of cultural history does Onderon have, and do its inhabitants consider themselves multicultural? Moreover, does Onderon suffer from discrimination because of factors like ethnicity or class?
Racism and discrimination need to be part of Star Wars because they’re a reflection of our status quo. Our own Earth has a suffocating amount of discrimination. And Earth is only one planet compared to the untold billions of worlds that populate the Star Wars galaxy. Stories about diversity are irrevocably linked to discrimination, and these are the stories that matter to our 21st-century consciousness.
Star Wars Novels Examine Prejudice and Genocide
Part of the problem with Star Wars’ current approach to diversity and discrimination is that the franchise hasn’t made those stories visible enough. For example, stories about the Galactic Empire go into extensive detail about its prejudice against non-humans. However, those stories only reach fans through the franchise’s novels and other supplementary material, not the movies. The fact of the matter is that Star Wars is a cinematic series. And until the saga’s films directly address topics like minorities and discrimination, these stories won’t receive the attention they deserve.
Unlike the movies, Star Wars novels haven’t shied away from crimes against species. In Christie Golden’s Dark Disciple, Count Dooku orders the genocide of the Mahran population. Moreover, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath: Life Debt examines the Empire’s enslavement of the Wookiees of Kashyyyk. Grand Moff Lozen Tolruck controls the Wookiees via inhibitor chips, making them fight for entertainment and even breed for slave labor. It’s clear that the Empire perversely regards the Wookiees as animals.
These stories are horrific yet important, so where are they in the films? Admittedly, Star Wars movies already show imbalances of social power. Slavery exists in the saga, as Anakin Skywalker grew up as a slave on Tatooine. One of the most graphic scenes of Attack of the Clones is when Anakin commits genocide against a village of Tusken Raiders in revenge for his mother’s death.
I’m not saying that Star Wars should enforce discrimination against certain groups of people. However, the entertainment industry has a responsibility to contribute to current conversations around discrimination, abuse of power, and the many crimes that affect our world. And to do so, Star Wars films must give more attention to these important stories. Perhaps the saga’s films can look to novels like Dark Disciple and Aftermath: Life Debt for inspiration.
We Need Inclusive Stories
The Mahran and the Wookiees show how species within Star Wars can become targets of discrimination. However, having aliens as a replacement for human minorities and real-world diversity isn’t a solution. How do the humans of Star Wars define their ethnic and social identities? That’s the main question that the franchise’s films must answer.
Recently, Disney CEO Bob Iger said of Rogue One, “Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy. It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.” It seems like Iger meant that Star Wars should be accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s background or political beliefs. However, his statement also implies that the entertainment industry should avoid current issues.
In the same month that Rogue One premiered, The Hollywood Reporter thought it was fine to ask seven white men how to promote diversity in animation. (Seriously, no women or people of color?) 2016 is also the year that Doctor Strange and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and Death Note adaptations gave lead Asian roles to white actors. Whitewashing still plagues Hollywood, and it’s one of many problems that need to be addressed.
Now more than ever, Star Wars cannot masquerade as a non-political story. Being part of science fiction or escapism doesn’t exempt the saga from telling meaningful stories. If the franchise pretends like it exists in a vacuum, then it will lose its relevance to our current social climate. Hollywood and authors of all mediums have a responsibility to tell stories that matter. And diversity and inclusion are topics that matter.
Even though human minorities don’t yet exist in Star Wars, I hope that will change. As we enter 2017, Star Wars will celebrate its 40th anniversary. It is time for the space saga to fully investigate the differences that set its galaxy apart from our world. Only by looking deeper, and finding meaning in those differences, will Star Wars preserve its relevance.