The Force Awakens: A Star Wars Game-Changer for Diversity and Gender

 

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Contains minor Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers.

Well, at this point everybody has had a shot of standing hours in line for two weekends to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and it seems like most nerds did just that (I for one am happy at all the street passes I got). Was it worth it? The overall response from audiences seems to be a resounding “Fuck yeah!” and the box office records that the film continues to smash bode well for the future of the franchise (it’s currently the fastest movie in cinematic history to make $1 billion in the box office). The movie is being lauded for having successfully captured the spirit of the beloved original trilogy as well as featuring a diverse cast of actors to portray the new generation of heroes. There is still much work to be done in order to usher in an era of true diversity in big blockbuster Hollywood movies, but the latest Star Wars entry is a promising start both because of the identity of its main leads and how they interact with each other throughout the film.

Force Awakens definitely isn’t the first movie to feature non-white male actors as substantive characters, but it does stand out for not making them second fiddle to a white male. The diversity really is center stage and not just “Hey,look! This white character’s bff/sidekick is a PoC!” or There’s women that fight and pass the Bechtel test!” There’s not a single white guy in sight amongst the new generation of heroes. Think about that for a second and try to wrack your brain for the last big blockbuster fantasy/sci-fi movie that didn’t have a single white guy as one of the heroes. Han Solo’s role in this movie is a consequence of him being part of the older generation, and it’s pretty clear he won’t be a big presence in future films. There are also white men in the Resistance, but they’re actually a minority among a group that includes male and female PoC being badass pilots and commanders that are led by General Leia and the Hispanic actor Oscar Isaac.

Between Hunger Games, Mad Max and Star Wars, this year has been pretty satisfying in terms of great female protagonists in blockbuster movies. I’d like to point out, though, that they’ve all been white. Now that we’ve finally proven women in general can star in action movies, it’d be great to start diversifying them (See Pacific Rim for an example of a great female character that happens to be a PoC), both in racial background and body type. Sure, Zoë Zaldana has gotten decent roles in big movies, but she’s never the main character and has to be blue or green. Apparently that’s more believable than a non-white woman. Also, and I’m aware of unfortunately how far-fetched this would still be at this point, we need LGBTQ+ characters. Star Wars might be able to get away with hinting at queer side characters, but there’s no way in hell they’re going to risk losing money for the sake of featuring a queer central character. I would be over the moon with that development, but I have no faith in Hollywood risking the controversy unless people make noise. We also can’t forget characters with disabilities either, though it was welcoming to see Furiosa in Mad Max with a prosthetic arm and Katniss has been showing signs of PTSD for some time.

I can’t help but compare Force Awakens to the now second biggest blockbuster of the year, Jurassic World. I had no love for that film, and the contrast between the two main characters in that movie – I literally can’t remember their names so let’s call them White Dude McGruff and High Heels – and Rey/Finn (or whatever their ship name is going to be) is one of the reasons. Rey and Finn’s dynamic in many ways is the polar opposite of White Dude McGruff and High Heels, and this is in large part because of what these respective couples are supposed to embody. Whereas Rey and Finn’s relationship has been updated for more progressive 21st century expectations of gender dynamics in movies, White Dude McGruff and Heels deliberately hearken back to the days of cinema where the tough, macho protagonist bantered with an “outspoken” damsel that was maybe capable of throwing a punch or two but ultimately needed to be rescued by McGruff.

To her credit, Heels does have some moments where she fends off dinosaurs on her own or does something useful, but those are always followed by her collapsing (in one instance literally) back into damsel in distress mode or being rewarded with a smooch from her protector. Rey is never made out to be somebody in need of handholding (ha), nor are her actions deemed impressive “for a girl.” Her clothing and hairstyle are practical for the tough environment she lives in, unlike Heels who apparently never thought it was a good idea to change into at least a pair of sneakers when one of the items in your agenda that day involves possibly having to run away from dinosaurs. More importantly, Rey’s body is never shown in sexualized manner for the sake of servicing the male gaze. Even the posters for the film had did Rey standing naturally with her weapon instead of in some contorted position that showed off her “assets.” It’s also important to note how important Rey is for driving the plot forward – she is a catalyst for the action and is not just there to go along with whatever Finn wants to do. Rey is indisputably the main protagonist of the new trilogy, and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

Finn is a pretty great breath of fresh air after witnessing Jurassic World somehow get rid of all the goofy charm that Chris Pratt brought to his other big roles and having him stomp around as apparently the only person that knows what to do. This happens despite the fact that Heels is the one actually in charge of the park because….you know, he’s just that macho and heroic. Finn is compassionate, funny and overall a very human character. Yes, there is a joke in there about him being interested in Rey’s relationship status, but his interactions with her are very different from those of McGruff and Heels. Finn never talks down to Rey in a condescending manner or mansplains anything, nor do we ever get any shots of him ogling her body. He sees her as an equal from the outset and trusts her judgment.

Finn and Rey have a great partnership and a romance that is not being shoved down our throats at the most awkward moments. Their interactions are cute and there is genuine respect there, and the movie actually ends in a rather platonic note. Rey has a lot on her plate and clearly doesn’t see her romantic status as a priority. Jurassic World, on the other hand, establishes the romance between McGruff and Heels by having a sweaty Chris Pratt seduce Heels with cliché innuendos and his manly musk. In a storyline that seems ripped out of a bad romantic comedy, Heels must learn to embrace motherhood through her nephews and her lack of a love life is blamed on her career. Make no mistake, if the main adult pair in Jurassic World felt a little out of place in the movie, from clothing to personality to roles, it’s because they are deliberate archetypes from times past. It’s almost as if Chris Pratt was channeling the…….Harrison Ford of the 70’s and 80’s. Huh. Irony.

Force Awakens did a great job of capturing the spirit of the originals, but it’s clear that the new movies also intend to embrace the expectations of this era for the better. The box office numbers are shattering all arguments regarding the lack of appeal of women and PoC as leads in blockbuster movies and, more importantly, generations of children are finally seeing themselves as the main heroes on the big screen. Unfortunately, this does not extend to the LGBTQ+ community, nor are there any characters with visible disabilities, which is why the fight continues for more inclusion. We can’t become complacent with these new standards because they still don’t fully reflect the diversity in our society and the value of all its members, so it is important to continue to demand for new heroes and new stories to be told.

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