Without a doubt, diversity is a hot topic everywhere you go and turn, often leading to insightful conversations or fullblown arguments, especially on social media. Some people are tired of hearing about it (because it’s either not relevant to them or they just don’t see the issue at large), while many more continue to bring the issue about the lack of diversity and representation to the forefront of public attention.
Believe it or not, I used to be the person who didn’t care. I lived in my own bubble, where I didn’t see the importance of representation in television shows or movies because it wasn’t my priority. I just wanted to see the story unfold, no matter who played the part or who was involved in bringing me that story. I didn’t need a Disney princess to look like me to feel included. If I wanted to be a Disney princess, I’d transform myself into one with whatever was lying around the apartment and let my imagination do the rest.
As I grew older, I started seeing the conversation more and more. I met people who felt strongly about the issue and studying Latino culture in college made me rethink my own childhood. One memory sticks out the most.
I was in my dad’s car. My dad is Ecuadorian, so he has thick, black hair and brown skin. I am, on the other hand, downright pale. I don’t remember what led up to him saying this, but he turned to me and said, “You’ll be fine because you can pass.”
At the time, I didn’t think much of it for whatever reason, but looking back on it now, it makes me sad. He was thankful that I didn’t look like him because I wouldn’t have to experience any of the difficulties he had faced (or continues to face) because of the color of his skin. I look White, and therefore, I can pass as White and have a simpler life because of it. That’s what his meaning boiled down to. That’s what society and media reflect.
You’re probably asking yourself what any of this has to do with Star Wars? It has everything to do with Star Wars and everything to do with us as diverse people. There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity and representation in Star Wars. Just recently, the fandom’s attention was on the lack of women characters in merchandise and toys. And several months before that, the community voiced their concerns about the casting choices for the highly anticipated sequel.
We all have our opinions and beliefs, but at the very core of the issue, whether you see it or not, is the need for change. Too long have we put down others and excluded them because there was a set standard. Too long have we sat by and let others define the status quo. The reason you see more conversation and more awareness is not because we’re trying to ruffle feathers, it’s because we’ve had enough.
There are several things that need to change and from different angles and perspectives. It won’t happen all at once and we’ll come across hurdles that will set us back, but the small steps here and there contribute to the goal of a truly diverse future in media.
Identity plays a significant role in writing diversity into a story. I identify as a Puerto Rican and American woman and a librarian. My friend identifies as someone of Mexican origin and Canadian and an artist. My cousin identifies as Black Latina and a student. Identities are always changing based on our preferences, beliefs, and experiences in life. The main character of Greg Weisman’s Rain of the Ghosts series is from a fictional place in the Caribbean islands. Rain is described as a girl with copper skin and thick, black hair. And she’s a Spanish speaker. If those books were to become a series of films one day, I would hope that the person cast to play the role of Rain is someone of Caribbean origin who matches her description.
There have been recent instances, however, where that’s not the case. Tiger Lily is someone who is and identifies with Native American culture, but Rooney Mara plays the role in the upcoming Pan film. Misrepresented and insulting, the role would have been more authentic and accurate had it gone to someone who identifies with Native American culture. The same applies to Maori character, Mazer Rackham, from Ender’s Game, who was played by Ben Kingsley because he could “pass” as Maori. A role one of the few Maori roles in literature and media that should have been played by a Maori actor was assigned to someone who was not Maori.
As creators, we have the ability to incorporate diversity into our stories and bring to life characters that are poorly or rarely represented. We also have the ability to take creative liberties.
Characters, such as Johnny Storm, Iris West, and Jimmy Olsen, who have been traditionally White are not identified by their Whiteness. You recognize them as White characters because they’re products of their time and that’s how they’ve been visually portrayed, but Johnny Storm’s identity is that of a hothead, Iris West is a reporter, and Jimmy Olsen is a photojournalist. Those are their identities because that’s how they’ve been written. Flipping the switch and making them Black does not take away from who they are as the characters we’ve previously known. Instead, their presence introduces diversity to what would have been a typical White cast. The choice is one that is based on being more inclusive, giving visual representation to those who seek it and introducing another person of color into the workforce of actors.
“What about making a diverse character White?” If we can do it one way, then why not the other? I’ve received this question a few times, and it’s a legitimate question. That concept, however, is commonly known as Whitewashing. In the previous paragraph, I explained the importance of introducing diversity in a creative way because of minimal representation in media. Taking a traditionally black character, for example, and making them White erases the diversity factor that was originally there.
Some of the opinions I see often range between “the person with the most talent should obviously play the role” and “diversity feels forced.” Well, seeing a White male protagonist and predominant White cast 90 percent of the time feels forced. When casting directors go out of their way to cast someone who’s clearly not Latino in a Latino role, that’s forcing diversity out of the picture and denying many of the capable and talented Latino actors out there an opportunity to play a role that’s meant for them.
“You know what—I have no problem with non-Hispanic actors portraying Hispanic characters. It’s called ACTING,” one commenter said in response to Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez (someone who has already stated that they don’t identify as Latino) in Argo.“And casting should be non-racially biased and open to all. If a Hispanic actor or a nonHispanic actor fairly gets the role because he or she is best, in the opinion of the director and casting professionals, then so be it. But acting is an art and should never have a ‘color’ requirement.”
The problem arises when things aren’t done “fairly,” which, believe it or not, happens quite often.
You’ve probably already heard the story, but did you hear about the woman who was turned away from The Hobbit because she was too brown?
“Now I’m going to repeat that for you,” comedian Wyatt Cenac said in his stand-up about the case. “Somebody told a real-life woman that her skin was too brown to play an imaginary creature. That basically, in the whole fictional world of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit,’ where you have dragons and trolls and talking trees, where you draw the line, where imagination is tapped out—no more room—is for a brown hobbit.”
Things aren’t done fairly. Letting things happen “naturally” doesn’t work in our world. We don’t live in a perfect society, where everyone gets a fair chance and people look at things with an open mind. Look at the negative reactions sparked by the Coca-Cola Super Bowl advertisement from 2014 or when people cried out that 2013’s Miss America didn’t deserve the title because she was Indian American. That’s why, as a unified voice, we point out the wrongs in these issues and we ask that people be more inclusive.
“I’ve heard people talk about images in popular culture changing,” said Lupita Nyong’o, a cast member in The Force Awakens, “and that makes me feel great, because it means that the little girl I was, once upon a time, has an image to instill in her that she is beautiful, that she is worthy—that she can… Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t so sure it was a possibility. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Colour Purple, it dawned on me: ‘Oh—I could be an actress!’ We plant the seed of possibility.”
Visual representation may not seem crucial to the majority who are continually represented on-screen, but it means something to the remaining population. It meant something to Lupita and her talent landed her a role in the upcoming sequel film. And hopefully, when a young Black girl sees Lupita on the screen come December, she’ll go, “Oh—I could be an actress!” Because that’s what representation does. It plants a seed, it inspires, and it makes things possible.
Johnamarie is the owner of TheWookieeGunner.com. She is a content contributor for Making Star Wars, Star Wars Report, and Fangirl Next Door. She is also a cohost on Now, This Is Podcasting! and Rebels Chat.