How Many Women Should the New ‘Star Wars’ Movie Have?

By  · Published on April 30th, 2014


Diversity is of vital importance to filmmaking, not only because of how powerful movies can be as a social tool, but because variety is what makes the engine of storytelling run. In an industry built on sharing experiences – one that’s notoriously slow to innovate on certain fronts – finding The New is the only way to ensure survival. Sometimes that comes in the guise of technology, sometimes in structure, and sometimes in the people whose stories are being shared.

The Star Wars: Episode VII casting announcement yesterday was, as you may have noticed, swift in causing some to reach for pitchforks over a lack of diversity. Several voices let their outrage be known, even without a full public actor roster or a detailed description of the roles.

I personally find that kind of kneejerk reaction less than useful because at best it’s well-intentioned but meaningless and at worst it serves as ego-tripping, more for the pundit’s own notoriety than a genuine concern for equality. Naturally, a healthy portion of outrage was fomented by assumptions about J.J. Abrams’ and the production’s intent, which drew their PR machine to announce that another prominent female role had yet to be announced. I’m impressed that they had the restraint to avoid saying, “Maybe wait until we reveal everything before you slam us?” in their release.

Particularly because representation is important, but it cannot be the only rubric for judgement or quality would always be in question. Also because it’s possible for creatives in Hollywood to consider quality and diversity simultaneously.

I’m not defending the imbalance (one that, let’s face it, will more than likely remain), but I also don’t care about ratios (in either direction) as much as others seem to because leading characters are far more important than balancing the gender numerals. On that front, it’s highly likely that Star Wars has just done something wondrously progressive. A potential triumph that got lost almost completely in yesterday’s angry noise.

Enter John Boyega and Daisy Ridley.

Keeping in mind this isn’t for certain, imagine for a moment that the heavily rumored scenario is accurate, and Star Wars: Episode VII is going to be led by a young black man and a young woman fighting heroically against two white guys (Adam Driver and Death from The Seventh Seal).

Ironically, I can see a scenario where Abrams and Disney thought they’d be praised for their forward-thinking when it came to the cast list.

It’s funny how hand-wringing over a ratio (in this case, 2/11 3/11) can eclipse the potential both of an excellently talented cast and for the film’s focus to be in the right space. Numbers almost never tell the whole story, and the ratio of 3 women to 11 men probably won’t here either. The more important ratio will involve screentime and character depth, and we won’t know any of that until December 2015. If at that point the movie fails on the inequality front, yelling will be called for. In the meantime, there are plenty of other properties to harangue.

Again, I don’t want to give the complaints short shrift. Diversity in art is a difficult and intractable problem. Whenever we ask for greater diversity (aka accurate representation), there’s always present the mental hula hooping of whether a bad piece of art with great diversity is preferable to a great piece of art with an imbalance. Of what should ultimately be valued. Then there’s the uncomfortable reality that Hollywood studio filmmaking is behind the curve on this issue – which is why I can see how it would be easy to assume the very worst of Star Wars here. Richard Lawson wrote this on that front:

“While the original films may suggest it by example, there’s nothing in the world of Star Wars that explicitly says that women don’t have as much agency as men, or that there isn’t a vast array of skin colors within the humanoid population zigzagging across space. So why so stringently follow the terrible rules of our own culture, where minorities and women are systematically marginalized in favor of white male hero after white male hero? Star Wars is pure fantasy, and yet a lot of this initial casting seems to follow our dullest and most frustrating terrestrial tendencies.”

Why so stringently follow the terrible rules of our own culture? Because the movie is being made within the confines of the terrible rules of our own culture. Or at least the four-quadrant fantasy that studios seem trapped in.

Lawson’s is a wonderful sentiment, and it’ll be interesting if and when Boyega and Ridley lead a film that asks the exact same question.

We don’t know that they will, because we don’t know much of anything, and it’s frustrating how this issue seems to eclipse all other factors of good movie creation. Can’t we cheer for momentum while asking fervently for a faster pace (and while getting jazzed for an interesting list of real acting talent)? Celebrate victories and in the same breath hope for more?

I’m all for pushing hard on the issue of equality and greater representation, but this current shout seems deeply premature. Like complaining about your meal while reading the menu. Social sins should be called out on the carpet, but we should wait for someone to commit them before we go for the torches.

And just to clarify my comment about not caring about ratios “in either direction,” if a new movie came out with 1 man and 11 women, but the man was the lead character, the ratio would be misleading. Problematic. Ditto for a new movie with 1 leading woman and 11 male side characters.

So I ask my headlining question in earnest. How many women should the new Star Wars movie have, and why will that ratio matter? Will it matter more or less if it’s an even gender split but it’s still two men in the lead roles? If Abrams says they have several other roles to announce, what would you consider a victory?

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