There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the Star Wars casting announcement recently. Adam Shaftoe has an excellent take on the issue over at Page of Reviews, and for something a little more light-hearted check out Max Gladstone’s blog.
I grew up with Star Wars. When I was four I used to un-ironically introduce myself to strangers as “Luke.” (I left the Skywalker part with the baffling innocence of children, leading to much consternation for my parents who had to explain that I was actually named Simon.)
When the new trilogy came out I was even more forgiving than most. After camping out for hours to buy tickets for Phantom Menace I was disappointed. I was uncomfortable with the broad racial stereotypes of the Trade Federation and the Gungans, but, even at the age of 20 I was willing to give George Lucas a pass “just this once,” because Star Wars.
As such, I feel a bit like Marc Anthony when I say that I’m very disheartened about what the recent news coming out of the new trilogy reveals.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The recent casting announcement included a grand total of two women (one new and one returning) and one person of color. On the other hand we see a lot of old white guys.
There are all kinds of reasons, from the perspective of culture and politics why this is disheartening. And Adam addressed those perfectly so I’ll leave that for now. But there’s another reason that I’m concerned with this casting choice.
It’s just bad storytelling.
The excuse I heard first to excuse the cultural and political concerns (and it took all of a picosecond for this excuse to rear its head on my Facebook wall) was that Star Wars is not set in this world. There are different rules for the Galaxy Far Far Away than there are for Earth. Perhaps the birth rate of women is just much lower. Perhaps the human-analogue species of Star Wars displays substantially reduced melanistic diversity and consequently people of colour are rarer too.
That’s grade A bullshit right there.
The fact of the matter is that Star Wars is a story created on earth by humans on earth and for humans on earth. Building characters is a deliberate process, and the choices we make about the characters we build always reflects some element of OUR world and our place in it.
Kameron Hurley knocked the ball out of the park with her article ‘We Have Always Fought‘ – which is currently nominated for the Hugo for Best Reated Work. I would like to strongly encourage anybody eligible to vote in the Hugo Awards to cast their vote for this article. It’s simply the best work of critical analysis I’ve seen specific to genre to the last decade.
Hurley’s argument, and it’s an exceptionally good one, is that our expectations regarding history are shaped by the narratives we create surrounding it.
Applying this to Star Wars, J.J. Abrams’ decision to return to 1980s style tokenism in Star Wars casting is structuring a narrative which isn’t reflective of the reality of modern western culture (which has become substantially more pluralistic and diverse over the intervening twenty years) and which frames a narrative strongly in line with the “history is made by white men” model.
This isn’t just bad politics. It’s bad storytelling.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones
Of course, there’s another problem. And that problem is J.J.’s marketing strategy. It’s possible that Star Wars will pass both the Bechdel and Mako standards with flying colours.
However we’ll probably never know until the film comes out, because of the god-damn mystery box. The same insufferable, click-baitey, pretentious marketing strategy that refused to admit that the antagonist in a Wrath of Khan remake was going to bee freaking Khan!
While Godzilla provides trailers and clips that let us know the broad strokes of the plot structure (that Godzilla will be called upon to fight other Kaiiju, that the movie will be a reflection upon the arrogance of humanity to believe we are the masters of nature), while Marvel lets us in on enough juicy tidbits of their films to build excitement for gambles like Guardians of the Galaxy, J.J. hides everything behind a wall of secrecy. He insists on details as simple as the names of characters counts as “spoilers.”
And so we only have his past work to fall back on for details. ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ white-washed the primary antagonist, turning him into a white British man. It did THAT (above and to the right) to Carol Marcus. It turned Kirk, Spock and Uhura into broad caricatures of their original series roles and it wrapped up this in a story that made no logical sense.
J.J. Abrams failed to understand Star Trek. He was tone deaf to what the Star Trek story meant. He was unable to understand what the story of ‘Wrath of Khan’ meant, for that matter.
We have his word that he is a fan of Star Wars. And, who knows, perhaps he’ll at least understand Star Wars. But with his childish insistence on secrecy we won’t know until it’s far too late.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
In some ways George Lucas got very lucky with Star Wars. It was the right film at the right time to inspire a lot of people. It became a touchstone for imaginative adventure for a generation and without it cinema would be a very different place.
Because of this, it’s very easy to give Star Wars a pass. We want license to love the things we love. And a lot of people love Star Wars; and not without reason.
But the truth is that we should also have the courage to say when the ambition of the things we love out-steps their value. We should have the conviction to call out the things we love when the falter and fail. And ultimately, though I hope it isn’t necessary, it may be necessary to put a knife into some of the things we loved in recognition that, regardless of what they once did they now cause more harm than good.
And if it comes to that, I know how I’ll eulogize Star Wars.