It was a happy day when Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie were announced as cast members in Episode VII. And with the later casting announcements of even more women, including another woman of color, it looks like Star Wars films are finally getting better with diversity. Media representation of women and minorities is hugely important to me, especially in science fiction and fantasy, which have the greatest potential to be the most inclusive. And not only will having a more diverse cast mean more potential for good representation, but it will open up world-building opportunities.
When we approach media, we bring assumptions about race and gender with us. But science fiction societies in fictional universes have no need to be bound to the attitudes of our society. The Star Wars films, though, have so few characters that are not male and so few human characters that are not white that you can’t really get a sense of in-universe attitudes. Knowing that Episode VII will have multiple people who are not white and multiple people who are not male (and assuming that Lucasfilm will not make the absolutely terrible decision to make all of the not-white actors aliens), there are a few different directions that they could go with in-universe race and gender biases.
One common approach is to have similar biases and assumptions about gender as our own society. Often this is done unintentionally, but the sexism of the Empire in the Expanded Universe That Was is an example of this being done intentionally. This was done largely to explain the lack of lady Imperials in the original films, but did still help to extend the world-building of the GFFA. Much less intentionally in the Expanded Universe was the rarity of non-white humans, which wasn’t directly addressed the way the lack of female Imperial officers was, it did still imply that the vast majority of humans in the GFFA were white. Fortunately, given the diversity of the cast of Rebels, it looks like this will not be the case from now on. While having the fictional universe reflect our biases is not inherently bad and it can be used very effectively when it’s done well, it is used far more often than one would hope considering the sheer number of possibilities that science fiction universes afford.
Another approach is to establish firm biases in-universe but to have them be clearly different from our own in some way. There are limitless possibilities for how this can be done, including Hapes’ matriarchy-with-dudes-mainly-acting-as-buff-eye-candy system in the Expanded Universe, but my favorite example of this is probably Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series of fantasy books because it’s done so well. In that series there are gender roles that in many ways are very similar to the traditional Western ones but the differences both drive home that this is definitely not our world and emphasize the arbitrary nature of our own society’s views. For instance, men call the shots and do the fighting and eat the spicy man-food… but all scholarly pursuits considered feminine, including engineering. Even the act of reading is ladies only, with very few exceptions.
Stormlight Archives also takes advantage of its fictional universe status in the handling of race. Not only is eye-color the basis of discrimination but Sanderson recognizes that there is no real reason to assume that physical trait combinations in a fantasy world would be the same as here. Again, this method, when done well, is great at emphasizing the alien nature of the world while drawing attention to our assumptions about how things must be.
I do find this one to be the least likely to be as the norm in Star Wars, at least as far as gender goes, but let’s just imagine for a moment a world in which the Imperial Guards are retconned as being all women because only women are considered suited to the task of protecting the Emperor.
The final approach I’m going to discuss is to do away with gender and racial discrimination entirely. This method requires an active effort to include lots of representation of often over-looked groups. The Honor Harrington books by David Weber, which start off as a science fiction retelling of the Napoleonic War, I think do an excellent job of this. The main character, Honor Harrington, is basically Space Horatio Hornblower, fighting space navy battles to save Space England from Space France while gaining a huge amount of recognition and respect and collecting promotions like kittens.
Also, Honor is a she.
Also also, Honor is mixed race, with her mother being described as Asian.
Neither of these things matter in Honor’s home society. Gender discrimination and racial discrimination are not assumed facts of life there. Weber recognizes the flexibility of science fiction and that he can controls everything about the setting. Even with being based on real-world events and even with Honor being based on a historical figure (Admiral Lord Nelson, who was a white man, if you’re wondering), there’s no need for it to be bound to real-world biases and assumptions. Speaking of which, an extra bonus: Space England’s royal family is black. Because what better way to is there to combat our assumptions about racial dynamics than to make the most powerful and visible members of that society people who, in our society, would be marginalized?
This method is one that I think is very important to see, because attitudes and biases about race and gender permeate so our society that we need reminders that those biases and assumptions are not completely natural, that this is not the only way things can be, that a world with equality is possible.
It will be interesting seeing how the sequel trilogy approaches race and gender. I would most prefer to see that last approach, but whichever direction the sequels go, I’m excited to see how the universe develops.