How to Integrate Diversity into Star Wars by Dom Nardi
With new Star Wars films on the horizons, we are once again bombarded with promotional photos of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa, as well as new characters like Rey and Finn. These characters all look human, yet they lived a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – not on Earth. For a story that spends so much time exploring the human condition, we know little about humanity in Star Wars. Ironically, the films visit the home worlds of Ewoks, Geonosians, and Gungans, but not of the human species. This is not just a random bit of pop culture trivia, but rather ties into an important discussion about diversity in the entertainment industry.
For other major franchises, the discussion about diversity is relatively straightforward. Most superhero movies take place in the United States, so proponents of diversity argue that Marvel movies should better reflect modern America. Star Trek represents a utopian vision of a united humanity, so Gene Roddenberry recruited Japanese and Russian actors (George Takei and Walter Koenig) in order to emphasize the international nature of Enterprise crew. By contrast, The Lord of the Rings takes place in pre-modern England, so it’s neither surprising nor objectionable that most characters are white and have British accents. In all of these cases, the setting of the story contextualizes expectations of diversity.
Without Earth, Star Wars has no such reference point. Fans frequently praise Lando Calrissian as a strong black character that avoids Earth bound racial stereotypes, but we know nothing about racial stereotypes in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Likewise, Temuera Morrison, the actor who plays Jango Fett, has a Maori/New Zealand accent, but it’s not clear if his accent is indicates that the character comes from a distinct cultural or ethnic group. As a practical matter, we don’t even know how to describe humans of different races without using Earth bound terms. When the new animated TV show Rebels aired, fans had to ask if the Jedi Kanan, voiced by Puerto Rican Freddie Prinze Jr., was Latino (tellingly, Lucasfilm representative Pablo Hidalgo refused to answer directly).
Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm came at a time when Star Wars fans started to demand more diversity in the franchise. Moreover, foreign markets now generate a much greater share of box office revenue than in 1977 or even 1999. The majority of Episode VII fans will neither look or sound like the Skywalkers. Of course, fans can and often do identify with other, non-ethnic aspects of a character, such as the character’s emotional journey. That said, Star Wars characters are far more than works of fiction; for many kids, they’re role models. Seeing a hero who “looks and sounds” like them can inspire younger fans and help them recognize that their own potential greatness.
Disney clearly envisions a more diverse Galaxy Far, Far Away. At Comic-Con in July, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy and Episode VII Director J.J. Abrams reaffirmed their commitment to including more minority characters in upcoming films. Under Disney, Star Wars TV shows, books, and comics have more characters with black or brown skin. John Boyega, a British actor of Nigerian descent, plays Finn in Episode VII, one of the most prominent characters in the trailers and promotional materials. Martial artist Donnie Yen was recently cast for Episode VIII, and he could very well become the first major “East Asian” character in the entire Star Wars saga. But the question remains: how to incorporate this human diversity without reference to Earth?
I believe there are two options going forward. First, Disney could adopt a “colorblind” approach to diversity. There would be no important social, political, or cultural differences between humans with different racial complexions in the Star Wars universe. In other words, the differences would be merely skin deep. At Comic-Con recently, J.J. Abrams voiced this approach when he told fans, “Honestly, we didn’t write the characters to be any color… we wanted the movie to look like the world looks.” In other words, a character’s race would be incidental to the character, and actors hired with little regard to their race.
This approach would be simple and egalitarian, but it might not serve Star Wars effectively because Star Wars has not traditionally been colorblind. For example, George Lucas deliberately modeled the Empire on Nazi Germany. By casting all Imperials as white, the films evoke Aryanism and associate it with the bad guys. By contrast, the Rebellion includes humans of all different types, as well as aliens, evoking the “rainbow coalition” of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Although the films never openly discuss race, Return of the Jedi uses visual cues and the racial composition of the cast to frame the Rebellion’s victory as at least in part a triumph against racism and xenophobia.
Rather than ignore race, I would advise Lucasfilm (were I so lucky!) to integrate diversity into the Star Wars story. In this “integrated” approach, diversity would not simply be a byproduct of studio casting decisions, but rather form an important part of the mythos. This would eventually mean providing an origin story for human diversity in Star Wars, as well as humanity in general. Were there ever racial tensions resembling what we’ve experienced on Earth? Why was the Empire so homogeneously white? Do some human races have better relationships with aliens because of shared historical or cultural experiences? These questions could provide rich storytelling fodder for years to come.
How should Star Wars integrate race in practice? Although no longer canon, Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire provides a useful example in how diversity can further storytelling. In the book, the last surviving Imperial Grand Admiral, Thrawn, is a blue-skinned, humanoid alien. Rather than being incidental to his character, Thrawn’s race raised obstacles to career advancement in the xenophobic Empire. He fought to gain the respect of his peers and was the first non-human to become an admiral. His status as an outsider also enabled him to think outside the box and devise unconventional military tactics. Thrawn’s difference gives his character additional depth.
In short, Star Wars should not only cast more diverse actors, but also use that diversity to tell stories about diversity. As evident in the daily news here on Earth, many of our existential challenges arise from interracial and intercultural relationships, from #BlackLivesMatter to America’s entanglements in the Muslim world. As a space fantasy fairy tale, Star Wars can talk about diversity without bringing in sensitive stereotypes and baggage. A “colorblind” approach risks sweeping those issues under the rug, but an “integrated” approach would help a new generation of kids to understand diversity. Just as Luke Skywalker taught my father’s generation the courage of conviction and Anakin Skywalker showed my generation the dangers of excessive attachment, the next generation of Skywalkers can show kids how to navigate a multiracial, multicultural world.
About the Author:
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.