Women of color are noticeably absent from major speaking roles within the Star Wars franchise, leaving many fans to feel Lucasfilm/Disney doesn’t think women of color play a part in the overall success of the franchise. Truth is they haven’t, but for some time now the definition of “success” has broadened beyond numbers. Audiences demand diversity now more than ever and consumers have made it clear that movies without it are falling short. The more diverse a film, the more financially successful it is, true, but inclusivity is simply the right thing to do—women of color have been erased from everything, including sci-fi, and the time has come to change it.
Now that Star Wars has upped the ante with its representation of women with characters like Rey, Captain Phasma, and Jyn Erso, it shows the franchise is open to female leads, but so far these actresses have been white, and actresses of color are left out. Women of color watch science fiction and women of color love Star Wars, so why aren’t they included in the series with prominent roles? There isn’t a clear-cut answer, but a significant part may be due to the targeted demographic of young white males and studio aversion to drastic change in Star Wars films on behalf of box office gains.
The target demographic for Star Wars has always been white men from 18 to 40. Characters like Luke and Anakin Skywalker are the embodiment of the demographic because they are characters those fans can project themselves onto. That translates into dollar signs in the form of merchandise and ticket sales. For example, after the weekend opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney spoke with Variety and explained that men made up 58 percent of the opening weekend audience and 71 percent of them are adults. That still leaves women as 42 percent viewing audience—this is significant because the argument can be made that if you build it, they will come. “They” being women.
If that is the case, then the current lack of women of color is bizarre especially since the Star Wars source material, (Akira Kurosawa’s film, Hidden Fortress), features several women of color in lead roles.
Take Princess Uki (Misa Uehara) of Hidden Fortress, for example. She is the character that set the stage for Princess Leia to become such a beloved character. George Lucas has stated that Leia has a lot more angst than Princess Uki, but that isn’t the case. Princess Uki pretends to be a mute peasant so she can navigate undetected within enemy territory. At some point in the film, she frees a female slave from her master, and in return, the grateful woman protects the princess from other peasants. There is a real sense of solidarity between the female characters in Hidden Fortress—which features three times as many women than the first six Star Wars film put together.
It’s not like they haven’t tried to break the tradition of whiteness, though. According to I09, Darth Maul, the antagonist of the prequel Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, was slated to be Chinese actress Maggie Cheung (In The Mood For Love). George Lucas chickened out, and the role went to actor Ray Park. Rogue One is particularly irksome because Star Wars fans are introduced to brand new characters who play a significant part in the resistance. Of the seven lead actors, not one has something about them that is race or gender specific, so an actress of color could have filled any one of those roles. But if movie tickets and merchandise sales are better among male fans, why does it matter? It matters because representation matters.
No, Lupita N’yongo as Maz Kanata does not count as representation to me. She only lends her voice to the role, not her image, so this doesn’t help women of color regarding visibility. This is stark contrast to white women who have come a long way in the Star Wars franchise. Between 1977 and 2005, Princess Leia and her mother Padme seemed to be the only women in the universe. Now, Hollywood has realized women do have buying power, and that power means there is an established demographic of young white girls to cater to. But there’s also a huge Star Wars extended universe, filled with fantastic female characters of color who add meaning to the narrative which provides a glimmer of hope for the future.
It was announced by Variety that Westworld actress Thandie Newton was cast to star along side Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke in the new Han Solo film. The article didn’t say which role Newton may play, but dammit I hope it’s Sana Solo.
Sana’s first appearance is various Star Wars comic books. Sana Solo is a black woman, can hold her own in a shootout, and is equal to Han Solo in every way. During the same week of Thandie Newton’s casting, actress Rosario Dawson expressed she would like to play Ashoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s only pupil, if the character appears in a live action film. Tano first appeared in Star Wars: Clone Wars, and made another appearance in Star Wars Rebels. Rosario Dawson is no stranger to the geek world, after all, currently appearing across the Marvel/Netflix shows as Claire Temple. She’s also voiced Wonder Woman, but she’s never gotten a chance at a Star Wars role.
Issues of race are not holding the public back from seeing Star Wars. Look at the success Rogue One: A Star Wars story. The film just crossed the one-billion-dollar mark worldwide with one of the most diverse casts of any movie in the series. Issues of gender are not holding the studio back from success. Actress Daisy Ridley is the lead actress in the new Star Wars trilogy of which the first film made over $2 billion in movie ticket sales. Rumor has it that Asian actress Kelly Marie Tran will be the first to break this dry spell as she will star alongside John Boyega in Star Wars: Episode VIII. If this is true, this will give hope to a whole new demographic and will guarantee the film’s financial success. My hope is that they are listening to the fans’ concerns, and believe in diversity and inclusion for men and women. Until fans see a female character of color that represents change, we will just have to sit and wait for something to give.