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Article – Tokenism in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’


Posted December 21, 2015 by

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Tokenism in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Initial reviews of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ have come in and it all looks blindingly positive. But despite it all we are surrounded by a vague sense of scepticism and mistrust, almost as if fans and critics alike are waiting for the bubble to burst and realisation to set in. Many an article has pointed out the initial mesmerised reactions to ‘Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace’ and it’s consequent dawning that really it hadn’t lived up to the hype or expectations.

My own besotted love for the prequels, and TPM in particular, aside, ‘The Force Awakens’ is superior mostly because of its inclusion of the original cast and it’s better production and acting values.

But it’s not perfect. And that’s because I expected more diversity in ‘The Force Awakens’. It tries but it doesn’t tick as many boxes as I felt it should have. We need more variety, more active and inclusive diversity, and ‘The Force Awakens’ falls short of delivering.

Rancor-sized spoilers ahead, please watch the film before reading.

I love that of the new leads, one is Black and the other is Guatemalan-Cuban, but what about the rest? Much was made of the fact that Finn is played by British actor John Boyega. He’s a stormtrooper and some people found it hard to believe that they could be black. I take it these folk hadn’t watched the prequels, where the clone troops are all Temuera Morrison.

Finn is probably my favourite character not because he’s Black but because he has a unique storyline and is funny as hell. But Finn is the only Black character on screen. Then how is it more progressive than the original series that was forced to include Billy Dee Williams because of its lack of diversity?

I know Lupita Nyong’o is in the film but I’m not pleased that she had a motion capture role. Why couldn’t she have been a Resistance pilot? Or General Hux – good heavens I can see her nailing that role without half as much hamming as Domhnall Gleeson.

Sticking with the First Order, people were very excited about Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma and I’m stoked that we not only have a female stormtrooper but also one in a position of authority with as much coldness as the troops they were named after. But she remains incidental to the plot and I’m not sure if she’s made it out of the first film at all. I know we could have seen a lot more of her character actively participating in large chunks of the story, but we don’t get that.

Women’s representation has always been a huge problem in the Star Wars universe and honestly I expected ‘The Force Awakens’ to have done so much more to better their representation. We have a handful of women on screen including Phasma, Maz Kanata (Lupita), General Leia (Carrie Fisher) a stormtrooper who asks one question, a couple of First Order commanders on the Finalizer, the First Order informant in Maz’s cantina, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and an Asian-origin Resistance pilot. Those are the ones with speaking lines. Other women are dotted around the landscape but if we had to be content with that we wouldn’t have asked for more from the original and prequel trilogies.

Characters of significance are what we needed. When the beginning scroll started I thought the pilot Leia had sent to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – the best pilot in the Resistance – was Rey (because that’s how little I knew of the characters and story). So as much as I really loved Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, I was ever so slightly disappointed when he showed up instead of Rey.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s excellent that the Luke Skywalker arc was transferred to a woman and I’m glad that Rey continues the refrain of the female Star Wars character who looks to be a damsel but takes care of herself and the rest of the cast. But I guess, in a way, I wish there was another woman in the mix with just as much cocky self-confidence as Poe.

Leia herself feels like a let down, not because of anything Carrie Fisher does, but because her story arc primarily concerns her son. She leads the Resistance but Abrams can’t seem to give her enough lines to make her look like a leader.

I find far too by screenwriters struggle to impose authority and command in women characters outside action scenes. Women the world over have been and will continue to be heroes because of the things they say do and change. They don’t just have to lift weights and do karate to be heroes. It’s one of the reasons Ridley Scott’s well-intentioned change in the ending of ‘The Martian’ didn’t sit right with me.

[Spoilers for ‘The Martian’ – I love that in the film Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis goes out into space to save Matt Damon’s Mark Whatney. It’s rare to see women characters as saviours. But in the book she controlled the entire operation and commanded just as much presence doing so – she saves him without physically getting out there. Somehow Scott and the writers couldn’t translate that same presence and energy onto the screen through acting and dialogue. Which turned out to be a let down.]

The same appears with Leia in ‘The Force Awakens’. Her abilities are implied but none of that is shown on screen. That’s disappointing because it’s obvious the makers of the film are trying to do better by her character – they just don’t do enough to succeed.

And, Mr. Abrams, I’m pretty sure you promised we’d finally get some LGBTQA+ representation in this film. Where was it? There’s a very heteronormative romance implied between our two leads even though they had no chemistry (sorry, but it’s true). No one else even remotely seemed interested in romance? Not an alien or an aside. There’s nothing overt, anyway. I suspect one of the characters might be on the spectrum, but that could be my over-active imagination looking for representation where there is none. We need LGBTQA+ to be canon, finally. It’s still not part of the Star Trek cinematic universe, but with the blank slate of ‘The Force Awakens’ we should have got this much-needed representation.

‘The Force Awakens’ works on several levels, coming across as a cohesive and comprehensive film while also valuing its past. And this just makes its token efforts at diversity even more infuriating! This film deserved to be an all-round package deal. New directors are coming on board for the other Star Wars spin-offs and episodes; can we hope they are able to fulfil these pending promises?


Read Similar Articles?…

[Joint Review] – ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
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Lestat de Lioncourt
Random Thoughts – Lestat’s Blog
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