While many media outlets are covering Star Wars: The Force Awakens with glee, one reason for the excitement is the way in which female characters and characters of color are treated. Rey, a white woman, seizes a primary protagonist role, kicks general ass, fights her first cousin to a standstill despite no formal training, avoids a metal bikini, and [surprisingly enough] doesn’t get railroaded into a bullshit romantic subplot with Finn — awesome! Finn, a black man, also features as a protagonist and gets to be goofy and heroic, and no one makes a stink about his skin color — yippee! Poe, an arguable secondary protagonist and brown man, is a totally hot dude whose origins on a Guatemela-like planet seem to pay homage to the actor’s own nationality — nifty! Princess Leia, a white woman, is a general now, leading the Resistance — finally! Captain Phasma, a white woman, intimidates everyone, also avoiding metal bikini — aw yes! Maz Kanata, an alien voiced by a black woman, does a wise, wry, insightful female Yoda impression — woo hoo! There’s a female Resistance pilot [I think she’s Asian] with lines — and she doesn’t die — party party! There are actual women, including Asian women, African women, and women of color, in bit parts and extra roles — sometimes they too have lines, and sometimes they don’t die either — ZOMG1111! From the way that general media interpretations are reacting, you’d think that this film was a historic landmark in progressive portrayals of women and/or people of color.
Mmmm…nah. It’s only a stupendous achievement if you’re looking at it from the limited lens of Smug White People Feminism. Otherwise, it’s not.
You see — if we were really going to have a super cool Force Awakens with novel and progressive treatment of its female characters and/or characters of colors other than pasty, the movie would address these aspects of characters’ identities in their stories. I do not care how irrelevant one’s sex and/or one’s race are supposed to be in the sci-fi universe of Star Wars; in the present day, on this planet, these highly salient characteristics inflect pretty much every aspect of one’s daily existence. Thus, The Force Awakens, as a movie that was created in the present day, on this planet, must reckon with the cultural truths that sex and race significantly define our lives.
What might such a realistic consideration of the characters’ sex and race look like in The Force Awakens? Perhaps Rey, having heard so many “myths” about the predominantly dude-based Jedis, could have some serious questions about her ability to use the Force like them. Maybe Finn’s revulsion at serving the Empire could include his unwillingness to support an overwhelmingly Aryan elite that sends brown people to do their dirty work. Maybe Maz could attribute her watering hole’s thousand-year tenure to the toughness she’s had to develop as a single woman running a huge business. Maybe the whole movie could stop gendering its primary conflict as “sons and their extremely boring Daddy Issues” and reconceptualize it as “people and their struggles with legacies, broadly construed.” In any event, a truly insightful treatment of sex and race in The Force Awakens would have the characters actively discussing such salient traits from which many aspects of their identities arise.
So…does The Force Awakens contain any self-consciousness for its characters about the sex they were assigned, the color of their skin, how these traits are negotiated in their cultures of origin, anything, anything? No! Of course not! Then we wouldn’t have enough time for Daddy Issues Part VII: A Lost Hope!
Seriously, though, The Force Awakens tries to update itself for modern liberal interests, but its treatment of female characters and characters of color shows the update as superficial at best. For example, let’s look at Captain Phasma, storm trooper leader of Finn’s regiment [and apparently the only woman in any position of power anywhere in the Empire]. Her character was originally male, explains Force Awakens cowriter Lawrence Kasden, but then was changed to female at the last minute. The Vulture article in which Kasden was quoted strongly implies that this change occurred in response to fan disappointment with the lack of women in the movie. The ecstasy with which actress Gwendoline Christie, who plays Phasma, receives this information — “…For that evolved thinking to be in a Star Wars movie, I think people love that!” [also from the Vulture article] — seems to represent the general joy with which The Force Awakens’ “evolved thinking” has been received.
A closer look at the example of Captain Phasma, however, reveals absolutely no “evolved thinking” of any kind. As Kasden explains, she was originally thought up as a man, but then her sex was swapped out as almost an afterthought. In other words, nothing changed about the character except that she would be played by a woman, rather than a man. In practice, this means that no one in the movie notices the novelty of a female storm trooper captain, despite the fact that they’ve been male in all previous films. I’m not asking for a soliloquy in which Captain Phasma reveals that she has impostor syndrome [although it could be really cool if done right, which it wouldn’t be]; I’m just saying that a truly progressive and insightful portrayal of a female character doesn’t just slot her in where a male character would have been. Instead, it considers how her experience, perspective, and personality are shaped because she’s a woman and, more specifically, a woman in a society dominated by men. In the same way, Finn’s story does him no justice as a black man because it refuses to let him engage with the reality of being a black man in a society dominated by people who look like the upper echelons of the Empire.
For further proof of lack of “evolved thinking,” let’s consider the example of Maz Kanata. Her character, who presides over a bar where characters go to get Luke’s light saber, is a small, four-fingered, hairless orange humanoid with super-powered glasses. She is played by actress Lupita Nyong’o, who identifies as Mexican-Kenyan. She has also won an Oscar, as well as acclaim in 2014 as one of People’s Most Beautiful. In other words, she’s an extremely skilled and talented performer who considers her embodiment as a brown-skinned woman with kinky hair important. In fact, in her commentary on being chosen as one of the magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful, Nyong’o implicitly contrasts her own features with the “light skin and long, flowing, straight hair” that formed her template for attractiveness when she was growing up. Force Awakens, take note — Nyong’o’s self-consciousness is just one example of the way that sex and race impinge on one’s self-concept and development.
The Force Awakens may give a brown woman a strong, crucial role, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact, it’s pretty racist. This Entertainment Weekly article points out why: “Maz is one of the few creatures in her court who is not a real-life, practical effect…” In other words, there were plenty of people and puppets in Maz’s set, but the director specifically decided to omit Nyong’o bodily and entirely, her presence only available as mediated through motion capture. While Nyong’o is performing in the movie, she’s not performing as a brown-skinned woman with kinky hair. She is instead performing as an orange-skinned alien with [unlike most of the bar patrons] no tangible presence. The Force Awakens literally disembodies Nyong’o, whose body and beauty are inseparable from her personality, identity, acting style and success, and public reception. The long [white, male] colonial project of reducing, distorting, and suppressing the [brown, female] Other continues unabated.
Anyone who thinks that The Force Awakens is an amazing win for representation of women and/or people of color should temper this analysis with two observations. First, representation is more than just a superficial numbers game. Authentic representation requires an engagement with the ways in which sex and race affect one’s life, especially if one isn’t white and/or male. Unfortunately, The Force Awakens lacks such character development. Second, we can’t just take as our measure of success, for example, Lupita Nyong’o playing a character who actually does stuff and performs integral, interesting plot functions. We have to examine how such a character is portrayed. And, if she’s not only deprived of a backstory that addresses her experiences as a person of a non-dominant sex and non-dominant race, but she’s also deprived of physical, bodily presence, then we have to recognize the sexism and racism at play here. Then we have to call it out, criticize it, and work against it, ’cause that’s the only way anything will change.
P.S. I actually really liked this movie.