Gender politics and the casting of ‘Star Wars’

Two weeks ago, I was at WonderCon, and I got to spend a bit of time with one of my favorite people. She's got a ten-year-old daughter who is a nascent geek, and we talked a bit about her very mixed feelings about the iconography that her daughter is dealing with as she finds her way through pop culture right now.

I was struck by one story in particular. Her daughter's favorite character right now is the Black Widow, and my friend wanted to buy some original art for her daughter. Every single image she found, though, was exactly the sort of over-the-top cheesecake shot that you'd expect. No matter what pose they had her in, the emphasis was firmly on both boobs and butt, and my friend ended up so irritated that she had to finally commission an artist to draw the character with her shirt completely buttoned up.

Even so, there was a photo she took at WonderCon of her daughter standing with a cosplayer dressed as Black Widow, and that sheer geek joy that I remember so vividly from my own younger years and that I see on the faces of my own kids is just radiating off of her daughter in the image. To her, Black Widow is a hero, pure and simple, and all of the larger conversations about representation and exploitation don't factor in for her. To that little girl, she looks at Black Widow, and she sees someone who stands side-by-side with Captain America, someone who is strong and funny and capable, and that is incredibly important for every young person. It is important that kids (and adults, for that matter) be able to look at pop culture and see some reflection of who they are and where they're from, and for them to see that there is a place in this larger world where they will fit, no matter what it is that they want to do.

Can I be honest? Even with all of this still fresh on my mind, I didn't see today's online reaction to the “Star Wars” casting coming.

The news about today's table read was, I thought, an interesting glimpse at who we'll be seeing in the new film, but I didn't think it told us anything more than that. Daisy Ridley seems to be playing a crucial role in the new films, and I offered up my guess that her position in the seating around that table today might be a clue as to who she's playing. Do I know for sure that she's the daughter of Han Solo and Carrie Fisher? Nope. She could be playing something totally different.

I was most excited by the inclusion of John Boyega today, but not because of his race. I was excited because I thought Boyega gave a great performance in “Attack The Block,” and I want to see him continue to work. I think he's got this great sense of presence, a real gravity onscreen, and it's going to be cool to see him make the jump to this kind of giant-canvass movie.

If what I've heard is correct, and I'm doing my best to not know too much about the movie, the roles that Boyega and Ridley are playing are the ostensible leads of the movie. When I saw the immediate uproar about representation happen, I understood that this is part of an ongoing push to change the way things work, and that for many of the people making the noise today, this is the single most important issue regarding pop culture right now. 

I also had a pretty strong feeling that simply making it a numbers game is a dangerously reductive way to approach things. If they filled the cast with exactly 51% women, but those roles were all thin and forgettable, has anything been gained? If we end up with two great characters who drive the entire trilogy, and one is a young black man and the other is a young woman, are we really going to call this a failure just because there aren't more of them in the film?

Isn't it more important to look at the finished piece as a whole and to see what, if anything, it adds to this conversation? When my friend was complaining about the Black Widow situation at WonderCon, she's talking about something that is out there, something that is ongoing, something that sends a destructive message that even the artists involved don't seem to fully understand, and I think her anger at that is entirely justified. The way the comic industry treats women, just on a visual level, is juvenile at best, and it's one of the reasons I can't call myself an active comic book fan anymore.

But I would argue that a big part of the problem, both for the comic industry and for the movie business, is about a sort of insidious intellectual laziness more than anything else. Hollywood tells the stories they tell the way they tell them with the characters that they use because that is how they have always done things, and those are the things that make money. If you truly want to get Hollywood's attention, then you have got to reward the things that you feel reflect the world view you want to see and you have to punish the things that don't. 

You can't go halfway with it, either. Trust me… they're starting to get the point, but just on the most minimal surface level. They look at the box-office for “Frozen” or the way “The Hunger Games” is performing, and they see “oh, good, animated musicals make money” or “we should buy more YA books.” They don't see it through the same filter that so many of you do. Hollywood's not exactly colorblind, but the only color that truly matters to them is green.

JJ Abrams will not be the only filmmaker to make a “Star Wars” movie. He may not even be the only one to make a movie in this particular trilogy. The important thing is that he is the first filmmaker to tackle “Star Wars” since George Lucas stepped aside, and as a result, this is seen as a pivotal moment for the series. Whatever template Abrams sets down in this film will have a strong influence over the rest of the series moving forward, at least for the immediate future. 

And while there are some people who have brought up some very relevant missteps that Abrams has made (the Alice Eve underwear scene in “Star Trek Into Darkness” truly is an indefensible mistake on every level), it's important to note that he's also been responsible for creating some very interesting and discussion-worthy female characters, especially in his TV work. I never saw “Felicity,” so I can't address that, but I think both Sydney from “Alias” and Kate from “Lost” were characters that challenged conventional ideas about the roles women should play on genre shows, at least when the shows began. I'm not sure I think that tracked all the way through either show, but at least at the start, these characters seemed like they were smart reactions to the way women are normally marginalized or forced into very narrow and restrictive roles in pop culture.

What I found discouraging this afternoon was the way people immediately made the decision that the film has already failed in its representation of both women and people of color. I made a comment to that effect today, and I was immediately barraged by people who had their arguments ready to go. I was especially sad to see people who I feel like I've had friendly relationships automatically turning this into an all-or-nothing battle. When I said that it seems premature to already decide what this film is or isn't based on a simple cast list, and not even a complete one, someone said I was trying to shut down the women in the conversation by accusing them of “hysteria.” It bothered me because (A) I didn't accuse anyone of anything, and especially not of something as loaded and ridiculous as “hysteria,” and (B) I'm not saying that the urge to push pop culture to do things better is a bad thing. Not at all. I think it's important, but I don't think the way to affect change is to immediately crank the online outrage machine up to 11 every time anything happens.

“Star Wars” looms large in this conversation because of what a titan of pop culture it is, and because it will no doubt continue to be a major force in the years ahead. My friend, who has been a lifelong film geek herself, wants her daughter to be able to look at these films and be able to lose herself in them. It's easy to point at Princess Leia and say that she's the answer to the overall question of how “Star Wars” treats women, and it's true… Leia has moments of great strength in the films. But when the overwhelming image of Leia in fandom now is her in a gold bikini bound at the end of a chain, is it her strength that is celebrated? When her role in the story was ultimately reduced to “Will she fall in love with Han Solo or not?”, is that a character you want to hold up as a role model?

Borys Kit pointed out that there's at least one more major role still to be cast, and that it's a female role. No, I don't think that will automatically make everything better, but I also don't think that we know enough to assume that it will make things worse. Until we see how these actors are used in the films, and until we see what sort of arc these characters have, it is too early to take a stand on either side. And if this is a genuine conversation that we all want to have, a conversation that we should be having, then insulting people and telling them that their viewpoint isn't welcome doesn't help anyone. I was blown away at how quickly things went from a mere comment to these condescending dismissals, and I don't buy that it's okay from anyone on any side of the issue. 

I may be a white male, but I know what the stakes are in terms of changing the way we tell these stories. I want my kids to grow up in a world where they can see a character as a hero because of what they believe and what they stand for, and I want their gender and their color to be the last thing my kids notice. I want them to think of heroes as anyone who stands up for those who are unable to do so for themselves. I want them to think of heroes as anyone who does the right thing regardless of the cost. I want them to think of heroes as anyone.

The way to get there is by encouraging strong voices to tell stories that matter to them, and to show the system that there is a financial reward for doing so. The way to get there is to support work that reflects those ideals and to be unafraid to call films out that fail completely at it. The way to make a change is from within, and to have the conversation whenever it's appropriate. And if I refuse to go all in just because of a press release, that is not me saying that the conversation is not worth having. That's just me saying that my own personal sense of outrage is reserved for the outrageous. This is just one of the many problems with the way Hollywood tells stories right now, and until we can empower new voices across the board to tell new stories, this isn't going to change. 

Just as “Star Wars” represented a fairly radical shift in mainstream storytelling when it was released in '77, a new film could easily lead the way for a new generation of film fans. I sincerely hope that when we gather in those theaters in December of 2015, we are all able to find ourselves represented in that galaxy far, far away.